City Council voted 6-0 to authorize Mayor Gretchen Driskell’s trip to Phoenix, Az., for the National League of Cities conference, Nov. 9-12.
During public comment John Heller, who is running for city council in the Nov. 8 election, questioned the trip, which will cost an estimated $1,354. The motion to approve the trip was part of the consent agenda. Council made it an action item at Heller’s request.
“I think it’s disgraceful, even in normal times, to be spending over $1,300 to send the mayor on a political junket to Phoenix for three days. It’s awful, being in times like these,” said Heller. “I think it’s even worse when two months ago you (members of council) were talking about cutting an essential service—police dispatch, and laying off some of the lowest paid employees in the city."
Heller went on to say that these kinds of expenditures are why some residents aren’t as concerned as city council is about the potential elimination of the personal property tax.
“If you want to know why the public and the legislature thinks that local government doesn’t need the revenue from personal property taxes, this is the kind of spending that gives them that idea,” said Heller.
After Heller’s remarks, council agreed to pull the item from the consent agenda and discuss it.
The mayor said she appreciated the concern about spending tax dollars, but said that she typically comes back from these conferences with ideas, new programs and opportunities that can benefit the city. According to Driskell, those programs include a prescription drug card that has saved residents thousands of dollars, a video for the city website, and a new warranty program that could save homeowners a lot of money on water line repairs. Just as importantly, she said, organizations like the National League of Cities and Michigan Municipal League lobby the state and federal government on behalf of member cities, like Saline.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn about new opportunities that the city might have an opportunity to access,” Driskell said. “That’s why I go.”
Councilor Dean Girbach said that Mayor Driskell’s work at these conventions has helped the city a great deal.
“I’ve seen you work hard on this. I’ve seen you represent us. I think this is worthwhile training, but that it is also representation that we need to continue,” Girbach said.
Councilor David Rhoads moved the motion to authorize the expenditure for the trip.
“It seems like every time the mayor goes to this conference she comes back with new ideas about how we can further improve the quality of life within our city,” Rhoads said. “In my opinion, it’s well worth the investment.”
Councilor Jim Peters said it was common practice for cities.
“The city is a business and this is a common business practice. If it didn’t have value, then businesses wouldn’t do it,” said Peters.
Councilor Linda TerHaar said her experience with Michigan Municipal League events have been worth it.
“My experience with the Michigan Municipal League has been extremely for my own education as a council member,” said TerHaar.
Rhoads later said that while the city paid for his trip to a recent Michigan Municipal League conference, he took three days away from his work to go.
Driskell said she was recently invited to Washington D.C. to meet with National League of Cities senior administration and with White House officials. Driskell said the city will pay for her train fare, and that she would stay at her cousin’s house to save money.
“I would hope to have the opportunity to talk to some of our senior administrators about Saline and what they could do in our community,” she said.
During public comment near the end of the meeting, Heller said that council was misreading the public’s mood.
“It seems to me that the general public does not see the value of spending tax dollars for that kind of travel. And I am not doubting what you are saying about receiving value from (the trips). But I don’t know if it is quantifiable or if people understand it,” Heller said. “Really, now that I’ve made these statements, people can render their verdict on Nov. 8."
After the meeting, Driskell posted in response to a comment on the Saline Patch Facebook page.
“When we go to a conference, we learn how to leverage our limited dollars into better programs, grant opportunities and learn about national programs not on our radar. We do not retain a lobbyist like some communities do. If we want to be competitive with the best communities in the country (location is a choice) we need to know how to compete,” Driskell said.