Government

This year, Cedar Rapids City Council caps its travel at $30,000

Some had exceeded new individual limit, but 2019 total less than cap

Ashley Vanorny: $8,515
Ashley Vanorny: $8,515
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Not long after Ashley Vanorny was elected in November 2017 to her first term on the Cedar Rapids City Council, she took a course designed to bring the newly elected around Iowa up to speed on the finer points of municipal government.

The Municipal Leadership Academy, presented by Iowa League of Cities and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, provides lessons on being an effective council member, the inner workings of city budgets and operations and a primer on public records and meeting laws.

Since her term began, Vanorny has attended a handful of training seminars and conferences intended to make her a stronger leader. In the case of the leadership academy, Vanorny paid her own way, she said. The City Council’s discretionary fund paid the cost in other cases, such as the Welcoming America Conference in Louisville, Ky., which led to Cedar Rapids’ Welcoming Week to encourage inclusion of immigrants.

“Every single time I go to one of these conferences I come back with ideas to make Cedar Rapids a better place — every single time,” Vanorny said. “It is critical. We all owe this to Cedar Rapids to learn from bigger and smaller cities, similar sized cities, and bring those ideas back, so we don’t spend time recreating the wheel.”

In fiscal 2019, taxpayers spent $24,809 for City Council members traveling to conferences, according to city travel logs. In January, the council instituted a practice capping yearly travel expenses at $3,000 per council member and $6,000 for the mayor, totaling $30,000 for the nine members, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said.

“We looked at it and said, ‘Do we have some general guidelines?’ and we agreed general guidelines were a good idea,” Hart said. “We have a budget, and if we are going to exceed that budget we would bring that to council for a vote.”

The travel budget is a small portion of the Mayor and Council’s $772,775 spending plan for fiscal 2019. The travel cap was instituted halfway through the fiscal year already underway.

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Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, said sending elected officials, as well as city staff, to conferences and trainings can be “incredibly valuable.” He recommended cities set travel policies and follow strong record-keeping to guard against wasteful spending.

“The value you get out of this is learning what other cities are doing around the country, especially those similar to you, and networking, establishing relationships with individuals — mayors, councils, appointed staff — who you can share information with,” Kemp said. “When you get to cities the size of Des Moines or Cedar Rapids — the largest in the state — this allows them to find peers similar to them they might not have in state.”

In Cedar Rapids, council travel expenses include transportation, hotels, meals and conference fees. The city sets a meal per diem calculated by location based on a federal rate, allows coach fare reimbursement on flights and single rooms for lodging. Upgrades are not reimbursable.

Trip expenses for elected officials or staff exceeding $3,000 require a vote by the council.

“Council members need to be able to answer the questions for themselves: ‘What is the taxpayer getting out of this? What is the benefit to the city?’” council member Dale Todd said. “If they can honestly answer that question affirmatively, than I consider it legit.”

Seven of the nine members — Vanorny, Hart, Todd, Ann Poe, Marty Hoeger, Scott Olson and Susie Weinacht — filed expenses for travel in fiscal 2019, which ran from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019.

Council members Scott Overland and Tyler Olson filed no expenses.

Weinacht sought reimbursement for $9,417 over five trips and 14 nights in a hotel. Weinacht, who serves on the National League of Cities’ 2019 Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee, attended league conferences in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., a National Conference of Local Governments in Denver, a meeting in Dallas where the Cedar Rapids Fire Department received accreditation and the Welcoming America Conference.

“Traveling to conferences to learn about, and understand, ideas for best practices from across the country is a reasonable expectation,” said Weinacht, who noted she takes seriously her “responsibility as an elected official and chair of public safety and youth services to be a well-informed decision-maker and steward of our citizen resources.”

Vanorny, who serves on the National League of Cities 2019 Community and Economic Development Committee, sought reimbursement for $8,515 for six trips and 13 hotel nights, including the Welcoming America Conference, Iowa League of Cities Conferences in Council Bluffs and Waverly, National League of Cities Conferences in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and a legislative reception in Des Moines.

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“It is professional development,” Vanorny said. “I am not sure why other council members are not taking more advantage of these opportunities.”

Other totals include:

• Poe filed $288, including one hotel room night, for the Des Moines legislative reception.

• Hart filed $1,734, including three hotel room nights, for a meeting with Alliant Energy in Madison, Wis., and a Cedar Rapids Police Department accreditation meeting in Huntsville, Ala. Hart’s trips to Washington, D.C., as part of federal lobbying efforts were not captured this filing period.

• Hoeger filed $2,260, including three hotel room nights, for RECon retail conference in Las Vegas.

• Todd filed $319 for attending a ConnectCR meeting and the legislative reception, both in Des Moines.

• Scott Olson filed $2,270, including four hotel room nights, for the Las Vegas retail conference and the SMART Economic Development Conference in Des Moines.

Hart noted several of the trips occurred before the spending cap was set, so the members weren’t breaking protocol. All of the trips have had legitimate purposes and were not questionable, he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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