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OPINION: Traveling Mayors

Continuing the legacy of his predecessor, the City of Richmond pays for Mayor Levar Stoney’s trip to Hawaii.

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In January 2013, Style Weekly ran an article recapping then Mayor Dwight Jones’s trip to New York to accept the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant. It talked about how Jones stayed at a “storied Manhattan luxury hotel” and how the trip ultimately cost the city $2,333, according to the travel expense voucher he filed.

It has previously been thought that nobody could top the wasteful spending and mismanagement of the Jones administration, but Mayor Levar Stoney says hold my skinny tie.

Stoney, like Jones before him, is a member of an organization called the United States Conference of Mayors, sometimes referred to as USCM.

Basically, it’s a networking organization for mayors. The organization has two conferences a year, one in the winter and a bigger one in the summer, to talk about best practices, to pass some resolutions making statements mostly on national issues and to help advance its members’ political careers by providing them an opportunity to schmooze with other mayors from across the country.

This year’s summer conference was held in Honolulu from June 28 to July 1. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the mayor’s office offered me the option of getting summary totals or the actual receipts. I was told that the actual receipts would result in a higher fee because they would have to be collected even though the city’s employee travel policy and its purchase card policy require turning them in. After that was worked out, the office ended up providing the receipts related to Stoney’s attendance at the Hawaii conference at a reasonable cost.

Stoney flew to Hawaii on June 27 and extended the trip beyond the conference’s end date of July 1, flying back instead on July 5. The flights alone for the mayor cost $1,961.42 including a $200 change fee and extra fees for upgrades to economy plus seating and preferred boarding. The city paid $1,718.70 for his hotel room through July 1. The fee for him to attend the conference was $1,150. This is the member’s late registration fee because Stoney registered on March 26 when the deadline was March 22. The city was charged $144.83 for his meals while on the trip. The total for this specific trip comes to $4,974.95, far eclipsing the $2,333 total for which Jones was criticized.

However, the true cost of the trip is even higher because Stoney did not attend the conference alone.

He was accompanied by a policy analyst from the mayor’s office, Maggie Anderson, who provides staff support to the mayor in his role as the chairman of one of the group’s committees. Anderson traveled to Hawaii on June 26 and also extended her stay, leaving on the night of July 4. The city spent $2,052.19 for her hotel room through July 1. A tabulation of all her receipts came to $4,215.93.

Other than a $120 receipt for parking at the airport for 10 days, it does not seem the city paid for any other part of their stays after July 1, the end date of the conference.

The total city expenditures for this one trip were at least $9,190.88.

But wait, there’s more. The city pays a membership fee for our mayor to be a member of the mayor’s conference. The annual dues are $12,242. A mayor is not required to be a member to attend the annual conference. Between just expenses related to this year’s conference and the past three years of membership dues, the city has spent at least $45,916.88 on expenses related to membership in the conference.

When asked to justify the expenses related to participation in the group and its conferences Jim Nolan, press secretary for Stoney, noted that the mayor’s involvement has “led to invitations for the city to participate in grant funded programs such as the Urban Land Institute and Rose Fellowship, for which the mayor focused on the future of Shockoe Valley, the Mayor’s Institute on City Design and the Harvard Bloomberg Fellowship to promote improved leadership in local government.”

Earlier this year, Stoney was appointed chairman of the USCM’s Children, Health and Human Services Committee, which Nolan says holds meetings at every conference “for which attendance is expected.”

Nolan adds that "with the current level of dysfunction in our national government, it is more important now than ever" that local governments share best practices. He also argues that the city has received grants from conference sponsors. At the winter 2019 meeting, Richmond received a $120,000 grant to support childhood obesity prevention programs, and in 2018 it received a $30,000 grant to help fund a program to promote health and wellness with therapy animals.

The IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant, which was the reason for Mayor Jones’s 2013 trip, was worth $400,000.

Whether it is Mayor Jones or Mayor Stoney, it seems that everything comes with a heavy dose of self-promotion and luxurious accommodations for the mayor. It certainly raises the question, when will the people of Richmond finally come first?

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