Commissioners on loose leash for travel spending

Rarely are questions raised about Santa Rosa County commissioners’ use of the panel’s $50,000 annual travel budget.

Instead, there’s a large degree of trust accorded in the commissioners’ judgment about the necessity of their occasional trips to such destinations as government policy meetings in Washington, D.C., and other gatherings in cities such as Orlando and Tallahassee.

Ironically, District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole recalled to a reporter that he expressed doubts to colleagues about some trips in a meeting during the Great Recession of 2008-2009: “I think we need to have a commissioner at some meetings, but it used to be that sometimes we all went. That’s very expensive and not usually needed.”

Since then the practice of all five commissioners routinely attending such functions as the Florida Association of County gatherings has largely ended. Cole said, “You can go online and see training lectures and other things.”

Still, Cole is an active member of the FAC’s Washington-based counterpart, the National Association of Counties. In fact, he has been named vice chairman of two committees that study and make policy recommendations in such areas as the environment and land use. Cole said, “If we don’t participate, we don’t have a voice.”

Further, commissioners also occasionally visit Tallahassee to lobby state legislators for millions of dollars in financial assistance to help pay for such projects as the renourishment of Navarre Beach.

But the details of such visits can be hard to come by. That’s because, for the most part, the county’s monitoring of commissioners’ travel consists of bare-bones financial vouchers filed when they return. The county tracks their expenses via receipts from hotels, restaurants and airlines, often charged to their county-issued Suntrust credit cards.

The vouchers mention such workshop seminar subjects as safety, growth management and ethics. But the travel records that accompany the vouchers are vague about the commissioners’ participation. For example, while they often submit pre-printed agendas, those documents don’t indicate which events they actually attended.

Further, those records don’t provide details on what was discussed in meetings, or with whom. The commissioners aren’t required to file reports on such matters when they return.

Spending contrasts

The leeway granted to commissioners is evident in the sharp variances in their individual expenditures. A Navarre Press review of expenses in the past decade found that while $3,500 to $4,500 a year is typical, there can be big differences.

For example, District 4’s Rob Williamson has spent an average of $12,872 a year since taking office in December 2014. In fact, Williamson’s $43,766 total for less than four years isn’t far behind the $48,252 that Cole has spent in his entire tenure, which began in 2007.

Williamson declined to respond to questions for this article.

At the other end of the spending spectrum, District 5’s Lane Lynchard has averaged only $875 a year since he started on the commission in 2008.

The commissioners’ total travel budget is slightly larger than the $45,000 of the Escambia board and more than twice the $24,100 in Okaloosa County.

They aren’t required to justify trips before they go, nor report on who they met with. Veteran Escambia Commissioner Grover Robinson—who often attends the same conferences and other meetings as Santa Rosa board members—said that it’s hard to predict the value of these gatherings or to evaluate them for months afterward.

“You won’t get results in Tallahassee or Washington,” said Robinson. “But down the road you can tell if you have been effective.”

For example, he added, “Both we and Santa Rosa were able to obtain millions of dollars in (BP oil spill compensation) after investing a small fraction in travel to lobby for it.”

Still, said Robinson, predicting results from a trip is difficult: “It’s like a salesman going on the road when he doesn’t know how customers will respond. He can’t guarantee a sale.”

Lure from afar

To be sure, commissioners are sometimes encouraged to travel, especially by the Florida Association of Counties, an influential statewide group that promotes local causes with legislators.

Cole, who has attended many of the association’s functions, said, “They like to have good attendance. They’re arranging for nice hotels and it looks good for them to have a big showing.”

Cragin Mosteller, an FAC spokesperson, responded to an email query that her group has “five main conferences annually.” She added, “And the association may host meetings and/or other programs as needed. The majority of our events are held in various locations across Florida.”

Mosteller confirmed Cole’s assertion that the group seeks big turnouts: “Every commissioner in the state is encouraged to attend the five main conferences annually…”

Such events are sometimes in resort area hotels. For example, the group’s annual conferences scheduled from 2019 through 2022 will be at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando. According to the association’s website, those gatherings will feature—among other things—“critical networking.”

Indeed, the get-togethers also present opportunities for the association to boost its profile that those of commissioners. For example, the FAC website’s home page currently features a photo of five attendees at one conference—they include Williamson and Robinson.

Ironically, in 2016 Williamson requested more travel expense details from staffers of the Tourist Development Office. In a public meeting, Williamson said, “I’d love to be able to have a quarterly report that says we went there, here’s why we went, this is who we met with and this is the result that Santa Rosa County tourism is going to see.”

Tourist Development Director Julie Morgan now presents such reports to her office’s volunteer board, but Williamson hasn’t extended his travel transparency recommendation to the County Commission.

To be sure, neither Escambia nor Okaloosa counties are strict about commissioners’ travel either.

Robinson said that in Escambia County, “We’re typically not going to prevent someone from going if they think it could be worthwhile.”

And while Okaloosa commissioners require prior approval for their out-of-town trips, such requests are virtually rubber-stamped by the commission itself. According to Kay Godwin, a spokeswoman for the county: “Overnight, out-of-town trips for commissioners are approved by the chairman of the board. The chairman of the board’s overnight travel is approved by the vice chairman.”

Travel expenditures of current county commissioners

Name                         Time frame                                 Total            Annual average                                         

Bob Cole                   2007 to 4-13-2018                    $48,252       $4,232

Lane Lynchard       2008 to 11-14-2016*                $8,755         $972

Sam Parker              11-22-2016 to 4-18-2018         $6,871        $4,580

Don Salter                 6-5-2007 to 9-21-2017*          $22,371      $2,033

Rob Williamson      12-16-2014 to 4-13-2018        $43,766      $12,872

Source: Santa Rosa County records

*Most recent records available

As seen in the May 17 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

 

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