Most city travel policies are short on oversight around SLO County

In nearly every city in San Luis Obispo County, the city manager spent the most money on travel to various conferences, training sessions and meetings in 2014 — yet none of those city’s travel policies specifies how the manager’s travel costs are overseen.

Changes are being proposed in Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, however, partly in response to recent questions by The Tribune about travel policies and expenses.

Officials in Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach said they had already been working on updates to their policies.

A Tribune review of travel expenses for all department heads in each city found that Pismo Beach’s city manager spent the most — nearly $13,000 traveling to nine meetings and conferences in 2014 — compared with Paso Robles City Manager Jim App, who spent the least at $850.

All of the county’s seven cities have travel policies that detail how city employees should plan their trips, keep records and account for expenses. While none mention who OKs the city managers’ trips, most also don’t state how department heads’ travel is authorized.

This omission shows little oversight at the written policy level on how trips are approved for the city employees who tend to travel most often.

Officials in several cities said department-head travel has historically been reviewed by the city manager, but the practice hasn’t been put into writing.

One exception is Pismo Beach, where the policy explicitly states that the city manager authorizes and approves department-head travel.

“When I get their request for travel, I ask them about the conference and how it relates to the city’s goals and priorities,” Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis said.

However, no such provision exists for Lewis. He said that he sets his own travel, which last year involved trips totaling $12,921 that took him out of his office for 33 days, including 25 workdays.

Lewis’ travel budget is approved by the city council each year as part of the budget process, and his expenses are reviewed by the finance department after each trip.

He said he doesn’t see a need to update the city’s travel policy unless there is a specific need or council desires to do so. He keeps council members updated on his upcoming trips and reports back on what he’s learned.

“It hasn’t been an issue for us because it’s transparent,” Lewis said.

Cities considering changes

Morro Bay City Manager David Buckingham, who has been on the job since September, said that after reading The Tribune’s editorial urging more oversight of travel expenses, he reviewed the city’s travel policy Wednesday and directed staff to add clear oversight requirements.

He said he has personally reviewed department-head travel, “but I want it in the policy, and I am adding my personal review of their expense sheets.”

In an email to his staff and council members, he wrote, “My expense sheets must be reviewed and signed off by the city attorney.”

San Luis Obispo officials, after receiving questions from the media about police Chief Steve Gesell’s travel expenses, are also drafting changes to their policy to include more oversight.

The policy will be adjusted so the city manager must approve department head reports and the city manager and city attorney will review and approve each others’ expenses, said Wayne Padilla, the city’s finance and technology director.

City Manager Katie Lichtig said Thursday that she has already taken administrative action to put the practices in place even before it goes to the City Council.

Grover Beach City Manager Bob Perrault said he’s approved department-head travel since he started with the city nine years ago. He also alerts the council any time he travels.

“It’s been on our radar to update the policy, but it isn’t something that has risen to the sense of any urgency,” he said.

Perrault said he expects the council to consider changes to the policy in the next six months, which would likely include a new requirement for the mayor to approve the city manager’s travel.

In Arroyo Grande, the city manager typically approves department-head travel and the mayor approves the city manager’s travel, but that practice is not included in the written policy.

Administrative Services Director Debbie Malicoat, who started drafting an update to the policy about a year ago, said that practice would be put in a revised policy.

Cities not considering changes

Atascadero’s policy states that all employees’ travel outside San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties must be approved by the city manager or her designee. That rule also applies to department heads, Deputy City Manager/City Clerk Marcia Torgerson said.

Atascadero’s city manager approves her own travel request, Torgerson said. In addition, all travel expenses for employees, including the city manager, are reviewed by the finance department. No policy updates are planned.

Paso Robles City Manager Jim App said the city put a hold on all employee travel in 2009, with a few exceptions, as part of cuts made to address multimillion-dollar revenue shortfalls.

Since then, all travel requests have been routed to the city manager’s office for approval, he said. App said the council is notified when he travels, but the council doesn’t approve his trips.

The travel policy was updated in 2009, the same year the restrictions were put in place, so an update of the policy has not been deemed necessary, App said.

The city’s general fund travel and education budget was slashed, he said, about 84 percent to $34,200 in fiscal year 2010-11 from $223,000 in fiscal year 2005-06.

Budgeting for travel

Several city managers said the travel budgets for training and conferences are set during each budget cycle and approved by their city councils. Atascadero’s policy allows department heads to adopt more restrictive policies because of budget limitations.

In general, the amount spent on travel will vary depending on each city’s philosophy and financial capacity, said Kevin Duggan, the West Coast regional director of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and a retired Mountain View city manager.

Employees who play a leadership role in professional organizations may end up spending more on travel, he said.

“As in other professions, it is critical for members to be well informed, well trained and aware of emerging trends and innovation,” he wrote in an email.

Marketing and education

The number of trips and the reasons for traveling vary widely by city.

Lewis’ nine trips last year included a few days in Washington, D.C., where he and Mayor Shelly Higginbotham met with federal agencies and elected officials to advocate on issues important to Pismo Beach: reclaimed water, rail safety, shoreline protection, among others.

He also attended a conference for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (the Pismo Beach Police Department is a nationally accredited agency); spoke at two conferences and serves on an ICMA advisory board, all of which necessitated more travel than usual.

Lewis said some of the city’s tourism marketing efforts have targeted Scottsdale, because Arizonans can fly directly from Phoenix to San Luis Obispo County. The city had a booth last year at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival and is one of this year’s platinum-level event sponsors.

Lewis spent two days at the festival last April promoting Pismo Beach.

“I’m not surprised that I’m the top traveler because we’re a community on the move, an engaged community,” he said. “The council is very supportive of a federal agenda and (being) a premier tourism destination in the county.”

Perrault, the Grover Beach city manager, made three trips last year, including a state Coastal Commission meeting about a lodge and conference center project — a key development for the city. He also went to a California Association for Local Economic Development conference and an annual League of California Cities conference.

“With the city’s limited resources, we need to be looking at and taking advantage of resources that can help assist us with economic development efforts,” Perrault said.

As a newly hired city manager, Buckingham said he traveled more last year than he intends to in the future to get up to speed on municipal issues. He served in the U.S. Army for more than 25 years, retiring with a rank of colonel.

“One of the commitments I made to the (Morro Bay) City Council was that in my first year I would work hard on my personal professional development,” he said.

One of his three trips included the annual League of Cities conference in Los Angeles last September, which took place after he was hired but before he started work in Morro Bay. Buckingham paid for his own airfare from Washington, D.C., and his meals.

In addition, when reviewing his expenses in February as part of a Tribune public records request for travel costs, Buckingham said he found two meal receipts from a December municipal finance seminar in Monterey that had been charged to a city credit card and inadvertently submitted to the city for reimbursement.

He wrote the city a check for $76 earlier this month.

In Atascadero, City Manager Rachelle Rickard’s eight trips included the Association of Zoos & Aquariums annual conference in Orlando, as well as a mid-year accreditation committee review meeting in Memphis, Tenn. The Charles Paddock Zoo is accredited by that association.

“She was able to form new connections and collaborations among other AZA members as well as bring back a great deal of information regarding successful ideas and methods for zoo sustainability and maintenance,” Deputy City Manager Torgerson said.

Lewis said conferences and workshops are a cost effective way for municipal employees to educate themselves and connect to experts.

“You can grab them at a break in a session and pick their brain,” he said. “You can make your money back quickly on a conference.”

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