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Council travel reflects disturbing level of cluelessness

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Nov. 8, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
November 8, 2011 5:36 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Four Tacoma City Council members are in Phoenix this week, attending a four-day city government training conference.

The cost of the trip – which includes airfare, hotel, meals, conference registration and other expenses – is $13,088. That’s not an insignificant sum – $3,272 per person – and it looks bad at a time when the city is facing a $26 million budget hole. That gap is likely to lead to employee layoffs and is already forcing nonunion workers and administrators to take pay cuts and up to 12 unpaid furlough days.

The trip was booked back in September, before the council learned of the big deficit, the four told News Tribune reporter Lewis Kamb. Had they known, they say, they probably wouldn’t have made plans to go.

The council members – Spiro Manthou, Marty Campbell, Joe Lonergan and Lauren Walker – had no inkling that the city’s finances were on shaky ground? That’s a little hard to believe. Although they might not have been aware of the extent of the city’s shortfall, there has been plenty of council discussion about spending outpacing revenue and indications that the economy wasn’t turning around very quickly.

And why is Manthou going on the Phoenix trip anyway? He’s term-limited, which means he’ll be out of office in about seven weeks.

Manthou says he thinks he’s attended seven earlier conferences sponsored by the National League of Cities during his eight years on the council. Can he learn anything more of value from the NLC at this point that will make him a more effective short-timer? At least for him, the trip looks more like a nice November getaway to the warm Southwest than a good investment for city taxpayers.

At a time when almost all local governments should be economizing as much as possible – some are even freezing all travel – sending four council members to the same conference seems like overkill. Why not have one member attend and give a brown-bag presentation to the others? Somehow the Seattle City Council is able to get by with sending only one member to the Phoenix conference.

This isn’t the only council trip that seems frivolous. Several members took a trip to Washington, D.C., to talk with the local delegation. At the same time they were back East, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith was in Tacoma.

With city employees facing furloughs and layoffs, trips of such dubious value reflect an out-of-touch council. Are council members really so oblivious to how their travel looks to their constituents and city employees during these hard times?

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