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."
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:
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."