Government & Politics

Since 2016, KC council spent $155K traveling to Cuba, Canada, Hawaii. Was it worth it?

KC council spent $155K traveling to Cuba, Canada, Hawaii

Here are some examples of trips broken out by destination from travel records going back to 2016 through the first quarter of 2018.
Up Next
Here are some examples of trips broken out by destination from travel records going back to 2016 through the first quarter of 2018.

Mayor Sly James and Kansas City Council members have traveled extensively over the last two years, spending more than $155,000 on destinations as far flung as Havana, Shanghai, Hawaii and Montreal, city records show.

The money went toward conferences, trade missions and lobbying of state and federal lawmakers. It cost taxpayers not just money but time.

A review of travel records from 2016 through the first quarter of 2018 show elected officials were away from the city a total of 289 nights — the equivalent of nine-and-a-half months.

Travel surfaced as an issue this summer when Councilman Scott Taylor, a candidate for mayor, introduced an ordinance to virtually eliminate gifts and sharply limit travel. The measure was all but dead on arrival, as James and other council members angrily accused Taylor of trying to boost his political prospects by creating a problem where none exists.

Taylor, the only council member who has taken no tax-funded trips, said this week that the data only reinforce his position.

“We have plenty of meetings to go to every night here in Kansas City that don’t cost a dime to go to and represent our constituents,” he said.

Taylor’s colleagues maintain that there was a legitimate reason for every trip, and that the records reflect a careful investment of public money. They cite what they contend are tangible benefits for constituents in the form of dollars, ideas and valuable contacts.

“If you want people to be able to do their jobs well, they need to interact with other people who hold them,” said Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, also a candidate for mayor.

Wagner reviews all council requests for travel and expense reimbursements. Members receive $10,900 annually to cover travel and other official expenses. The mayor’s office has a $50,000 travel budget. Trips are also funded by the aviation department and other agencies without tax revenue.

Wagner himself has spent nearly $11,000 in public money on overseas trips but self-financed others. He’s visited Hannover, Germany, to promote the city’s jazz heritage at a music festival, and led delegations of civic leaders to Shanghai and Chang’sha in China and Mexico City for discussions with businesses that he said could eventually lead to local economic growth.

“If travel is such a bad thing, why are we building all these hotels?” asked Wagner, who said he supports the current travel practices “unless someone can tell me what’s wrong.”

James’ $22,000 tab included a January 2017 trip to Washington, D.C., for the annual dinner of the Alfalfa Club — a century-old social group founded by Southerners to celebrate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday. It exists today as an elite gathering for capital insiders. He was invited by former Missouri Sen. Christopher Bond.

Most of James’ expenses were for meetings of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He holds multiple leadership positions in the advocacy group, including co-chair of the task force on small business and entrepreneurship.

James’ spokeswoman, Laura Swinford, said in a statement that the mayor’s role in the group “has given Kansas City a national platform to both highlight its progress and innovations, as well as build relationships with leaders from cities across the country.”

Are Kansas City’s 13 lawmakers spending more on travel than their peers in similar-sized cities?

Comparisons can be tricky because budgeting practices and sizes of councils vary. Records are often available only through time-consuming public information requests for stacks of expense reports and receipts. It took nearly two months (May 4 to June 28) for Kansas City officials to fully comply with The Star’s request under the Missouri Sunshine Act.

The 12-member Charlotte City Council, including then-mayor Jennifer Roberts, spent nearly $74,000 on travel between June 2016 and June 2017, according to The Charlotte Observer. That’s roughly what the James and the Kansas City Council spent in calendar year 2017.

Denver, which like Kansas City has a 13-member council, does not break out travel expenses in its budget documents. But there was controversy in May when Colorado Public Radio reported that Denver International Airport paid $426,436 in travel expenses to the mayor’s office and city council from 2013 to 2017, mostly for overseas business class flights to promote tourism.

Last month, the council defended the practice. Rejecting an advisory opinion from the city’s ethics board, it voted unanimously to amend rules so that members can accept gifts and items of value from city departments.

Councilman Kevin Flynn told The Denver Post it was “illogical to put city agencies in the same category as contractors and lobbyists who are trying to get multimillion-dollar contracts.”

In New Orleans, the 7-member City Council charged more than $155,000 for out-of-state trips to city-issued credit cards over a four-year period, The New Orleans Times Picayune reported in November 2017.

Here’s a closer look at how Kansas City Council’s travel expenditures break down.

Frequent flyer

Councilman and 2019 mayoral candidate Jermaine Reed was by far the most prodigious council traveler.

The chair of the council’s transportation and infrastructure committee made 26 trips totaling more than $31,000 in expenses, about $9,000 more than the mayor.

His destinations included the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa in Koloa, Hawaii, in January 2017 for the American Association of Airport Executives (also attended by Councilwoman Jolie Justus, chairwoman of the council’s airport committee), and Las Vegas for the May 2016 International Council of Shopping Center’s convention for investors, managers and executives at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino.

Reed said he went to Las Vegas to explore possible retail opportunities for the city. But with the brick-and-mortar retail sector going through an epic shakeout, what did he hope to accomplish?

“As with many things worth doing, they take time to bear fruit,” Reed said in an e-mail. “We know from market studies that visitation to the City is growing and as a result there is a strong market for food and beverage and cultural and entertainment uses.”

Reed added that there was particular interest in the 18th and Vine district, which has struggled to draw business.

Seventeen of Reed’s trips were to conferences of the National League of Cities, the urban policy and advocacy organization where he serves on the board of directors. He said that because of his “tireless efforts,” the NLC will hold its 2022 City Summit in Kansas City, bringing an estimated 4,000 municipal officials and local government experts. The local economic impact, estimated in the millions of dollars, far exceeds his travel expenses, Reed said.

Host cities for summits are selected by the 60-member board, according to communications director Tom Martin. The board voted on Kansas City following a presentation in June by Denise De Julio, executive director of convention sales for Visit KC, and Reed.

Priciest trips

The most expensive single trip during between June 2016 and the first quarter of 2018 involved five council members and the future of Kansas City International Airport.

In September 2016, Justus, Reed and three other airport committee members — council members Quinton Lucas, Dan Fowler and Teresa Loar — spent $16,000 to attend the annual conference of Airport Council International in Montreal.

The organization, which calls itself the “Voice of Airports,” represents local, state and regional airport authorities. At the time, the aviation department and airlines serving KCI had recommended a new single terminal for KCI, but Mayor Sly James put the project on hold because polling showed a lack of voter support.

Justus said she was able to meet with architects and designers to discuss current projects and attend sessions on financing options, including the public-private model eventually adopted by the city.

“I left this conference with a deeper understanding of airport financing and construction,” Justus said.

Did five members have to go? Wagner said he believed it was appropriate.

“The individuals who have to make a decision like that should be as familiar as possible with the industry. Restricting that opportunity to a few seems short-sighted,” he said.

The priciest trip by a single council member belonged to Fowler. He spent $4,909 for an October 2016 journey to Havana organized by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. Fowler said he expected to make valuable ministry contacts to help connect Cuban and Kansas City markets.

But the four-day itinerary listed in Fowler’s travel documents didn’t look too business-heavy.

“After a leisurely breakfast, begin your morning with an informative visit to a local health clinic,” one day’s schedule began. There was also a “unique day trip” through the Cuban countryside for a demonstration of cigar rolling and visits to a village with “colorful homes” and “friendly people.”

“I will admit that it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for,” Fowler said this week. He said a subsequent trip to Cuba, in the fall of 2017, was more substantive and included meetings with government officials and the beginnings of possible relationships in pharmaceuticals, bio-technology and animal health.

However, in June that year, President Donald Trump announced tighter restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba that were implemented in November.

“Had the White House not clamped down on relations with Cuba, I am very confident we would be doing business with them now,” Fowler said.

Dinner on contractors

Traveling council members get a per diem for breakfast, lunch and dinner, using rates set for federal employees by the General Services Administration. If someone else pays for a meal, that per diem is deducted by the city. It doesn’t necessarily cover the full cost of the meal.

Expense reports show that dinners were bought by private companies that do business with the city.

In 2016, Crawford Architects, an international firm, was promoting a proposal — never adopted — for renovating KCI. According to Reed’s report on his Montreal trip, he and the four other members (Loar, Justus, Lucas and Fowler) were dinner guests of the firm. Justus said she did not go.

Burns and McDonnell hosted at least three members of the council’s airports committee during the period it was trying to secure the development contract for the new single terminal: Fowler in 2016 at the NLC summit in Pittsburgh, and Loar and Justus at 2017 NLC meetings in D.C. and Charlotte, respectively.

In June 2017, the company was awarded a four-year $48 million contract to manage the federally mandated overhaul of the city’s antiquated sewer system.

Members said the practice is common and has no effect on decision-making.

“It would take a lot more than a dinner to influence my vote, especially one as large and important as the airport,” said Loar.

Travel is ultimately less a perk than a responsibility, Fowler said, with days spent in meetings, seminars and workshops, not lounging on the beach.

“Frankly I think that we as council members are expected to do some travel for the city so I don’t see a problem,” he said. “For most of us, I think travel for city business is something we think we have to do, not something we want to do. “