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Kespohl ads lampoon Skala's travel expenses

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:56 p.m. CDT, Sunday, April 11, 2010

COLUMBIA – A campaign ad by Third Ward candidate Gary Kespohl that debuted Tuesday morning says incumbent Karl Skala spent more than $16,000 in taxpayer money on "gourmet junkets" in his first three-year term. Skala, however, says his travel isn't out of line and reflects his service to the city.

Kespohl's ad, set to the tune of the Johnny Cash song "I've Been Everywhere" says "Skala has been on a three-year, taxpayer-funded spending junket — traveling and eating like a king."

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City records of council travel budgets from recent years show that Skala, who seeks a second term, has spent more than his fellow council members on travel. Skala said that spending is legitimate.

Many of Skala's trips have been to conferences of the National League of Cities, an organization with which he has become increasingly involved since his election in 2007. The league over the past three years has met in New Orleans, Orlando, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas, among other places.

"It's not as if we are going out to play golf," Skala said. "We had meetings from 8 in morning to 8 in the evening. ... I don't think it's unreasonable to put a good meal at the end of the day on the reimbursement list."

Kespohl's ad says Skala has ordered oysters, duck and other meals that the campaign says are extravagant for a council member on the public dime. Kespohl's Web site includes a video version of the ad and a narrative that includes links to online images of some of Skala's dinner receipts.

On Kespohl's campaign Web site, a blog post says, "Karl Skala and his party savored Surf & Turf, Filet Mignon, Lamb, Duck Breast, Raw Oysters on the Half Shell and other high-priced seafood, plus expensive desserts – all at taxpayer expense."

"I understand why people want him to go seminars and conferences but that doesn't excuse expensive dinners," Kespohl said. "We have to start conserving money."

Kespohl said he did not write the post himself but approved the finished product. He also said the lampoonish character of the song in the ad was not his idea, but he approved it.

"I feel like I'm informing the taxpayer of what he's doing with their money," Kespohl said.

In each of his first three years on the council, Skala has submitted travel expenses totaling more than any of his colleagues, with the exception of Mayor Darwin Hindman. He also has attended as many or more conferences than any of his ward representatives each year.

The total travel budget for City Council members for fiscal year 2010 is $40,500. That includes $10,000 for the mayor, $4,500 for each ward representative and a collective $3,500 to cover the cost of the council's annual retreat. That total number is up from fiscal year 2008, when a total of $32,250 was allocated for council travel.

Projected travel expense reports are given to council members almost quarterly, City Clerk Sheela Amin said. Council members have the right to oppose any requested travel expenses, which would then be discussed by the council at a work session or council meeting.

"Council chooses to bring up issues they might have with the report," Amin said. "To my knowledge that hasn't been done yet."

Amin is responsible for some advance payments such as registration fees, some hotel fees and some airline fees. She said money is never directly advanced to council members.

Although there are no specific rules for reimbursements, there are guidelines that all city employees and elected officials are encouraged to use when traveling for city purposes, City Finance Director Lori Fleming said. Those include:

  • Breakfast should cost under $7
  • Lunch should cost about $10
  • Dinner should be about $25

If a city employee exceeds the suggested amount, the Finance Department decides whether the expense is justified, Fleming said.

"I don't recall ever having to disallow money for council members," Fleming said.

City records show three or four council members frequently attend the same conferences. Kespohl said that's a waste of money.

"I'm all but ready to put a moratorium on city expenses," Kespohl said. "I think they need to be very specific with what they spend and what they can do with taxpayer money."

Kespohl said if he is elected to the Third Ward, he will not use taxpayer money to travel unless a majority of the council asks him to go. For other travel, he said, he will pay his own way.

Skala said the council recently agreed not to seek reimbursements of more than $7, $10 or $25 for breakfast, lunch and dinner, respectively, while traveling. That decision came after the expenses criticized by Kespohl and before the release of his ad.

So far this year, when multiple council members go to a conference, they have spent roughly the same amount, according to council travel records.

The exception is the National League of Cities Congress of Cities Conference, where Skala's trip cost more than $1,000. The next highest cost accrued by a ward representative during the conference was just less than $700.

Skala said the disparity is likely due to the cost of going to extra seminars because of his status on several national committees. Skala was nominated to the National League of Cities Leadership Training Committee, and he sits on the City Futures Panel on Democratic Governance. Skala said each seminar can cost up to $250 extra.

"If the total also includes the leadership sessions, I usually attend," Skala said. "I do have responsibilities with the leadership training institute sessions.

"These are working meetings, and they have tremendous value to our community," Skala added. "We are all very cognitive of what we are doing. I'm not apologizing for anything."


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Comments

Ray Shapiro March 24, 2010 | 3:12 a.m.

("I don't recall ever having to disallow money for council members," Fleming said. Many of Skala's trips have been to conferences of the National League of Cities, an organization with which he has become increasingly involved since his election in 2007.")

(Sing this to "Nowhere Man")
Kespohl is like no where, man.
Living in his own mind's no where land.
What a desperate man and the Chamber must be...to do this.

Out of whack, his point of view.
Knows not who he's griping to.
Finance Department approves it, not you.
Kespohl's really out of order...

-If Kespohl's figures are accurate, $5,000 a year is a bargain for the caliber of a man Karl Skala is to his ward. Why belittle any council member for approved seminar classes to keep council up to date and in touch with other leaders? Representing our city at these conferences is a good thing for Columbia. (Would $3,000 a year spared us of such an outrageous Kespohl- approved negative campaign? Should good-will ambassadors of Columbia be expected to brown bag it?)
Nah, you guys still would go for the jugular. Like sharks after blood. What a pathetic bunch of "business leaders."
I am ashamed and embarrassed of the way the rich folk in this town are trying to buy three council seats this year.
Even with all your money, you guys still have less class than I do.

(Report Comment)
Michael Sleadd March 24, 2010 | 8:09 a.m.

$40,500 (or slightly more) seems like a darn good deal to me for yearly expenses for seven "employees". What would GK say if we paid our city council a small amount like many many cities do? Would he be suggesting that we cut those salaries? This is petty stuff and extremely muddy. Rather than talking about real issues we are taken through this sludge by a few angry men (see Ray above... don't care for his songwriting skill, but agree otherwise). I didn't expect that GK would attend any meetings if elected. When you are being told how to run a campaign and how to vote on council (by those same angry men) you don't need to educate yourself. Karl Skala is an excellent council member who has served his city and his country well. I don't think his ward will begrudge him a good meal every once in a while.

(Report Comment)
Michael Sleadd March 24, 2010 | 8:21 a.m.

AND one more thing, I have it from a good authority, that council members often share items such as appetizers and even main courses when on these trips. So, items you see under one person's expenses may have been consumed by more than one person.

(Report Comment)
Kip Kendrick March 24, 2010 | 8:29 a.m.

Karl Skala is not paid for services on the city council, yet he puts in around 40 hours a week reading materials and staying informed on the issues. He attends conferences to learn new ideas in order to bring in outside knowledge to Columbia. I know Columbia has an intelligent population, but it's always good to bring new concepts to our community!

To continue such negative campaign tactics (fear tactics) is very unfortunate. Kespohl's entire campaign has been based on attacking Karl Skala. I commend Karl for taking the high road and concentrating on the issues that matter. The Third Ward deserves more than fear mongering.

(Report Comment)
Michael Scott March 24, 2010 | 8:31 a.m.

Why do we need to send 3 or 4 council members to the same conference? I have heard that both Skala and Hoppe attended a smart growth conference in Seattle earlier this year. It is a complete waste of city resources and we're just feeding the misguided personal agendas of council members for no real benefit to the citizens of this community.

If Skala is going to incur greater expense by being on various committees at some of these conferences, he shouldn't be on them.

I would certainly love for someone to pay for me to take a vacation and eat good meals, but the offer hasn't come up yet. Guess I should run for council next time!

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger March 24, 2010 | 8:51 a.m.

It's possible that Mr. Scott hasn't attended any conferences recently. My experience is that there are multiple sessions in these things, running simultaneously, so it's impossible for any one person to attend them all.
As for the advantages of attending a conference, there are many: useful information from other cities facing similar problems; exchanges of ideas; and the plus of enhancing Columbia's reputation as a forward-thinking, engaged city. Last, getting out of one's own town and seeing how others deal with issues can be tremendously energizing.

(Report Comment)
James Downey March 24, 2010 | 9:11 a.m.

I love how one of the criticisms of Skala is that he isn't aggressive enough in making connections and courting business for Columbia, and then in turn he is criticized for working to have a higher profile and making connections which benefit Columbia's reputation.
-
The Council members are donating their time - what is essentially a full-time job. To insist that they also shoulder the burden of travel associated with that position means that 1) only those who are wealthy will be able to hold the position, or 2) that they do not continue to improve their ability to do this job, as well as promoting and representing Columbia on the national stage. Neither option seems to make sense to me.
-
The travel expenses for the entire Council are trivial when compared to not only the City budget, but in the value these people bring to our city. This issue is, at best, a distraction from the real question of who would better serve our city in the future.
-
Jim D.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin March 24, 2010 | 9:22 a.m.

Here's where all this is coming from (see email below). Larry Moore is a big development/Chamber honcho who works for the Sapps of Old Hawthorne fame (talk about ostentatious living!)

Larry Moore and Karl Skala locked horns early last year when a Chamber group Larry was on tried to remove Skala.

From: Larry Moore [mailto: lmoore@conagg-mo.com]
Sent: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 11:25 AM
To: Larry Moore
Subject: Skala wastes your taxpayer dollars

Please forward this and go the the website below and hear the radio spot.

An absolute scandal has been revealed in Columbia city government: Ward 3 Councilman Karl Skala has spent more than $16,000 on taxpayer funded gourmet junkets to vacation destinations including Orlando, New Orleans, Chicago, Austin, Seattle, San Antonio, Portland, Washington, D.C., and the list goes on.

Not only did Columbia taxpayers cover Skala's expensive air fare and lodging as he jetted from coast to coast, they kept him in high style at meal time. Taxpayers were billed by Karl Skala for surf and turf, filet mignon, oysters on the half shell, duck breast, lamb, exotic seafood and expensive desserts. Columbia cannot afford three more years of Karl Skala's squandering of taxpayer dollars - certainly not in the worst economy since the Great Depression, with revenues down, unemployment up and Columbia's economy at a virtual standstill.

See the scandalous details for yourself - receipts and all.

Visit www.gary4council.com

(Report Comment)
Marsha Doebel March 24, 2010 | 10:01 a.m.

Why are meals reimbursed anyway? You're going to have to eat at some point if you are there or not...Why should he have a free meal? Just because he is working for the City? Hell, I need to find a job that feeds me for free everyday...

(Report Comment)
Michael Scott March 24, 2010 | 10:54 a.m.

Another thought - During these tough economic times, most businesses have slashed travel and conference budgets, some elimiating events all together.

Why do our council members feel the need to increase their budget for travel, meals and conferences instead? This does not send a very good message to the community.

The answer I can assume is ego. Karl and some of the other members feel important by talking about how they attend this conference or that one. Let's cut it out. Voters will show that they are ready for someone without a personal agenda and instead one that understands the needs of this City. That candidate is definitely not Skala!!

(Report Comment)
Pat Fowler March 24, 2010 | 12:13 p.m.

A few years back, probably during a campaign for re-election, there was a similar discussion about Karen Miller's role in the national, professional, organization that supports county commissioners. There were published complaints she was wasting county funds. She has participated at the national level, held office and as a result has an expanded encyclopedia like knowledge of both Boone County and other similarly sized counties. If you doubt that, have a conversation with her. Our County Clerk, Wendy Noren, is recognized nationally as a leader on issues of elections. She participates in similar national organizations and has input on policy at that level. She similarly has an encyclopedia like knowledge of election law and trends, particularly with the fiscal realities of election requirements.

On the city council, Karl’s ability to discuss city issues across all aspects of city government, again with that encyclopedia like knowledge of our ordinances, past policies, good and bad outcomes, makes him an ideal person to send, along with other elected council members, to National League of Cities conferences. In order to expand their understanding of what is going on in cities and counties around the country, our elected officials must attend meetings of this type. They share ideas and common problems, they ask more sophisticated questions of their peers because they do their homework, and come back with better ideas for policy implementation here.

The more they talk about Columbia on the national level, the more they demonstrate that as a city and county we have a thoughtful understanding of the issues that we face and other similarly situated cities and counties face, the better reputation we get nationally. People looking to site their companies in new locations pay attention to information like that. They are listening too.

I’m not troubled by the fact that our council members have dinner with other conference attendees in the restaurants surrounding the conference site. They tend to site these conferences in the nicer parts of town in big cities. I’d be more concerned if they weren’t spending time with their counterparts at every opportunity while they were at the conference.

Mr. Kespohl’s choice of how to bring this the attention of the public demonstrates, perhaps, how he plans to deal with information he doesn’t like in the future. We all make mistakes, especially in the heat of a highly contentious campaign. I hope Mr. Kespohl has the good sense to apologize, soon and widely, for this instance of poor judgment.

(Report Comment)
Elizabeth Hornbeck March 24, 2010 | 12:31 p.m.

This criticism is absurd. The article states that ward representatives on the city council each have an annual expense budget of $4,500, and Skala has not exceeded that amount, has he? He did not claim reimbursement for alcohol, because that is not permitted under the rules for reimbursement. $4,500 is not an unreasonable sum for expenses per person, especially given that council members volunteer thousands of hours every year in an unpaid position, representing and serving the city.

In response to Marsha Doebel, who wrote, "Why are meals reimbursed anyway? You're going to have to eat at some point if you are there or not...Why should he have a free meal? Just because he is working for the City?" What planet are you living on, Marsha? Have you never worked in a profession for which you had to travel professionally? EVERY such employer reimburses for meals, whether it is the State of Missouri (University of Missouri, MODOT, or what have you) or private industry. This is a professional norm.

(Report Comment)
Dale Jones March 24, 2010 | 12:43 p.m.

For those who are protecting Mr. Skala, I fail to understand how these expensive conferences have helped him in his decisions regarding City issues on the City Council. I don't want the new City Council members going to these conferences if they teach to make great cities into a "Chicken City", ignoring safety for citizens downtown when over 3300 citizens had to sign a petition for a public vote and the downtown assocation supports camera's, fighting with the City Manager. Skala, Hoppe, Neuser need to be replaced now. We need new City Council members and a City Manager!!

(Report Comment)
Marsha Doebel March 24, 2010 | 5:25 p.m.

Elizabeth, you got me...Im from Mars. I think its crap that people are reimbursed for meals. When I go on trips for my company I do have the option to be reimbursed for meals. I dont take it because I dont feel the need for my employer to pay for my meals on trips when I'm going to have to eat anyway...I'm going to pay for my meals if I'm in CoMo so I might as well pay for it on trips too...But I guess thats just us people on Mars for you...you greedy Earthlings.

(Report Comment)

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