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Sunshine Week: Salisbury City Council reimbursed $3,800

Editor’s note: March 13-19 is Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information and what it means for citizens and the community. This is one of a series of stories examining access to local elected officials’ travel reports and how much they spend.

 

By Amanda Raymond

amanda.raymond@salisburypost.com

The city of Salisbury reimbursed its council and mayor about $3,800 in travel expenses for the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, up until Feb. 15.

Mayor Karen Alexander, former Mayor Paul Woodson and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell turned in reimbursement requests for the time period the Post asked for. The total amount reimbursed was $3,844.54.

Alexander was reimbursed $1,359.84 for two trips in 2015, one in Colorado and the other in Montana. Blackwell was reimbursed $772.42 for three trips in 2015 in Montana, Charlotte and High Point. Woodson was reimbursed $1,712.28 for eight trips in 2014 and 2015. Woodson traveled to Chapel Hill, Asheville, Lexington, Washington, D.C., Raleigh and Carrboro.

According to the city’s travel policy, any city employee or official traveling on official business must be as responsible as if they were traveling on personal business and using personal funds. For example, officials have to fly coach unless otherwise approved. Funds for annual travel are included in each department’s annual budget request.

The city will reimburse for things like meals that are not provided by the meeting, mileage, conference registration and hotel expenses if the official pays for those things out of his or her own pocket.

The policy is strict about not reimbursing for other things. Woodson brought his wife Beth to some of the out-of-town meetings, but the city did not reimburse him for Beth’s dinner guest registration fees because the city only reimburses employees and officials for the costs he or she would incur if traveling alone.

To cut down on expenses, Blackwell said she packs snacks like apples and protein bars and sometimes uses those snacks as breakfast. She also only drinks water with her meals.

“I only charge for proper meals,” she said. “I don’t ever charge for snacks and stuff like that.”

Blackwell said it is usually cheaper to stay at the hotel the conference reserves, especially because the conferences are usually held at the same hotel.

When Blackwell asked City Clerk Myra Heard if she was being as cost effective as possible, Heard said she was “extremely conservative.”

“So that was affirmation for me that I don’t travel needlessly and when I do, I don’t rack up a lot,” she said.

Alexander said when she was snowed in for a couple of extra days while at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, she negotiated a lower rate than what was originally charged for the conference.

Blackwell is conscious of whether the meetings and conferences are useful for her to go to. When she went to the 2015 Gigabit International City Summit, she said that although she and Alexander learned a lot, it was aimed towards cities that were trying to become gigabit cities, and Salisbury is already there.

“So this year, instead of going to that, I’m going to the BBC Summit in Austin in April. That’s the Broadband Cities Summit, so those are cities that already have broadband,” she said. “So I can learn more.”

The Post requested the travel policy and reimbursement records of the city on Feb. 15. It took the city two weeks to process the request. The request was made to City Manager Lane Bailey and later forwarded to City Clerk Myra Heard. On Feb. 26, Heard sent an email stating that they were still working on the request and hoped to have it completed by the next week.

Heard said the records had to be collected and organized from different locations by staff members, on top of doing their normal day-to-day work. Plus, there were some staff members out sick, so she had to wait on them to return to work.

Heard said although two weeks may seem like a long time, the city processes the requests as quickly as it can.

Alexander said in an email that Heard has a “constant backlog” of requests from media outlets and citizens.

Blackwell said that the city wants the media to see everything they are legally allowed to see, but the requests are processed on a first come, first served basis.

“If there’s a delay in you getting your request, I would say … it’s first in, first out and you are just unfortunately behind a bigger bus on the highway,” she said.

In terms of other forms of transparency, Alexander said the council’s decisions are made in public and decisions made in closed session are announced to the public. She also said agenda packets and records requests are available to anyone and all audited statements and budgets are online.

Blackwell said starting City Council meetings at a later time, something she advocated for in 2013, and having a public comment session at every council meeting also helps.

“I think that was a clear effort at transparency,” she said.

Blackwell said that although she did not want to speak for other council members, she felt that they would agree that they all want to be as transparent as possible.

“We want you to see everything you want to see,” she said.

Contact reporter Amanda Raymond at 704-797-4222.

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