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Councilwoman’s travel expenses under scrutiny after audit - http://travelporn.info | luxury travel sites

April 8, 2018 3:28 pm
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Gomez’s itemized spending does not appear to reflect anything unexpected from a city official. It’s the frequency of travel requests that has raised scrutiny.

VICTORVILLE — City Councilwoman Blanca Gomez has been reimbursed for travel expenses this fiscal year more than her fellow council members combined, leading to official change inside City Hall on how such spending will be approved.

During the current fiscal year, which began July 1, Gomez had been reimbursed $4,390.74 through Thursday for attendance at a series of events, three hotel stays and two airplane flights.

By comparison, Mayor Gloria Garcia had been reimbursed $1,268.79; Councilman Eric Negrete, $945.96; and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Cox, $276.42, over the same period, according to the requested figures provided by the city.

Councilman Jim Kennedy had not submitted any travel expenses.

Gomez’s itemized spending does not appear to reflect anything unexpected from a city official.

She routinely attended Victor Valley Chamber of Commerce breakfasts for $18 each month; she went to the League of Cities conference for $928 — including registration, flight, shuttle and hotel; and attended the Legislative Action Day and League of California Cities executive forum for $2,096, incorporating shuttle, airfare, hotel and presumably registration.

Other events included the Monterrey Leadership Forum, Hispanic Chamber Eye Opener Breakfast, San Bernardino Water Conference and Association of San Bernardino County Special Districts membership meeting.

But it’s the frequency of travel requests that has raised scrutiny. She expensed at least 15 events, more than double the next closest colleague, Mayor Gloria Garcia (7).

On Tuesday, Garcia — the two very publicly do not get along — called on the city’s Finance Department to provide the expenses for each council member “for the sake of transparency.”

“I would like to see how much money council members are actually spending because this is taxpayers’ money and we need to be transparent,” Garcia said. “And I would like to bring it before the public. I would like to bring it before the taxpayers, so that they can see how we abuse or not abuse their money.”

The request was aimed at Gomez, no doubt, as Garcia has before expressed concern over her disproportionate share of spending. Garcia’s suggestion failed, however, when the Council meeting was cut short amid a spat between the two — a reflection of a fractious dynamic that has often played out from the dais.

On Thursday, the city provided the fiscal year expenses of council members after it was requested by the Daily Press.

Gomez did not respond to two messages seeking comment on her spending, but in a Facebook post late Thursday she accused the newspaper of “sensationalism and yellow journalism,” suggesting that council members in the past have, too, spent beyond their allotment.

The city’s first spending policy was enacted in about 1993, according to spokeswoman Sue Jones. In October, it was incorporated into the newly adopted City Council Policy Manual.

It outlines that each council member is allowed an individual $1,200 allotment per year for appropriate reimbursable expenses. On top of that, funds are separately budgeted to cover one League of California Cities meeting per year or similar educational meeting for each member.

Lastly, $5,000 is set aside as part of a group pool, for any additional spending available to all council members above and beyond the individual allotment.

The City Council typically would have to approve all expense requests.

Gomez had spent $1,365.94 from her individual allotment and was the only council member to dip into the group pool, expensing $2,096.80.

Jones said the “irregular number of travel requests” from Gomez spurred the city to conduct an internal audit of all council member expenses.

“As you can see, one Council Member has spent more than their given $1,200 allotment, all of their League allotment and an additional $2,096.80 from the Group Pool,” Jones said via email, “while others have yet to spend any of their budget allotment.”

The audit then prompted the city to enact extra controls “to ensure funds are available for all Council Members” and to ensure the spending policy is followed, Jones added.

One of those newest controls, she said, is that all expense requests moving forward will be submitted to the city manager for approval.

Gomez has prided herself on being more engaged than her peers — both in the community and in city business-oriented matters. Supporters, and Gomez herself, would likely point to her activity as a sign of that engagement.

But for a council woman who casts off news media as one-sided, yet simultaneously will not offer her perspective to the media, it wasn’t immediately known how she would respond.

In her Facebook post, which appeared to act as a preemptive push back to a story she understood would be forthcoming, Gomez reiterated her firmly held narrative that she is in the center of a political battle against the status quo.

“When the city controls the information,” she wrote, “the peons side right along with it.”

The Daily Press has since requested historical figures pertaining to city council member expenses.

Shea Johnson may be reached at 760-955-5368 or SJohnson@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DP_Shea.