Travel is never the biggest expense in a government budget, but it can indicate how an agency feels about taxpayer dollars.
That’s why such spending often grabs headlines.
In June, officials at a Rock Falls City Council meeting reported that two of its members went on a city trip to Nashville. Since I started covering government in the Sauk Valley in 2011, I have rarely heard about officials going on out-of-state trips, let alone two at one time.
After the meeting, I searched the city website and found that members regularly attended public power association conferences because of Rock Falls’ municipal utility.
A couple of days later, I submitted a public records request for the travel expenses of council members and top officials for the past 5 years. I went back that far because some officials had attended an American Public Power Association conference in New Orleans in 2008.
The city clerk’s office quickly compiled the records, well within the deadline under the state Freedom of Information Act. The office spent 30 hours on the request, I was told.
I felt bad about that. I don’t like tying up a unit of government with a request.
In the taxpayers’ mind, though, the silver lining may be that the publication of such information may prompt a serious review of city travel spending, which could more than offset the 30 hours of staff time.
As it turns out, the public power conferences weren’t as interesting as the City Council’s spending at Illinois Municipal League gatherings in downtown Chicago, with one notable exception: Three officials had a $167 dinner, including a $29 swordfish plate, in 2008 during an association event in Washington. That’s more than $55 a person for dinner.
At another newspaper years ago, we reported on a community college board’s trip to a conference, where they went to a fancy steakhouse. Their bill amounted to $89 a person.
During the Chicago conferences, the city spends about $9,000 a year in hotel bills. Each year, officials get together for a dinner at an upscale restaurant, spending hundreds of dollars.
For the $167 dinner in Washington, the officials paid with cash, so no itemized receipt is available. With the other big meals, they used a credit card, so the public gets to see only the total, without a number of guests. So there is no way to figure out the average spending per person.
At least Rock Falls officials confirmed they had alcoholic drinks on the public dime. Community college board members, on the other hand, swore that they didn’t use taxpayers’ dollars for drinks, but they had no itemized receipt to prove that. It was hard to imagine how you can spend $89 a person without alcohol.
If such spending were posted online, we’d probably see less of it.
David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525.