Records: City of Hollister travel, training costs take off

City Hall

Travel and training costs have escalated for some City of Hollister departments in recent budgets. During the current fiscal year’s first five and a half months, those expenses totaled $56,288, according to documents obtained by the Free Lance.
The related expenses from July 1 to Dec. 14—specified in a report provided by the City of Hollister Finance Department in response to a Free Lance records request—included such examples as:
• Three employees traveling to Las Vegas on a six-night trip for an airport business conference at The Venetian with total costs nearing $9,000.
• Three police employees traveling to Texas, with total airfare exceeding $1,000, specifically to receive an award.
• More than $4,000 in travel or training costs charged by the new city clerk between his hiring in September and the Dec. 14 records release.
• No cap or per diem set on reimbursable expenses for food or beverages.
• And varying levels of detail provided in reporting of specific charges.
As for planning such expenses, each fiscal year the city council OKs a budget that includes travel costs for every department in a range of accounting classifications such as training, conferences or meetings, but the city doesn’t tally a total budget figure for those types of expenses in its $19.5 million general fund.
In some specific departments within the general fund, meanwhile, travel and training budgets have ballooned since 2012-13, the year in which voters approved Measure E as an extension to a 1 percent special sales tax that now generates about $4.4 million annually. City voters are set to weigh another extension to the sales tax on a June or November ballot.
In the fire department, which has expanded ranks and its coverage area through contracts with the county and City of San Juan Bautista, the travel/training budget has increased from $6,800 in 2012-13 to $59,100 this fiscal year, according to the city budget.
The police department has increased its travel/training activity as well, going from $21,889 spent in 2012-13 to $35,470 budgeted this fiscal year, according to the 2015-16 budget document.
Those growing public safety departments’ travel or training expenses, at least partially, reflect how some expenses are mandatory due to state or federal legal requirements. A portion of the public safety travel undertaken wasn’t necessarily mandated, though.
Among the travel costs were non-mandated, non-budgeted expenses incurred by three police officials—Police Chief David Westrick, Capt. Carlos Reynoso and Sgt. Dan Winn—who traveled to Houston for the Secure Cities Training Conference & Exposition in November. The listed purpose of the trip in the city’s accounting records was for the police department to receive a security award for use of video technology at the Hollister biker rally.
Though there is no total cost listed in the provided records for the security award trip or other city employees’ trips, itemized expenses showed the three police officials’ airfare costs came to a sum of $1,060 for the Houston expedition, according to the figures. That included a $507.20 cost for Westrick’s airfare ticket to go with more than $500 in total for the other two along with separate American Airlines “connections” fees attached to the chief—related to the conference—of $68.09, $71.83 and $132.
Westrick responded by email to Free Lance questions about the Houston trip and other police travel expenses.
Westrick wrote: “Captain Reynoso, Sgt Winn and myself attended the Secure Cities Training Conference and Exposition in Houston, Texas. This was not a budgeted class, however because there was a few classes that we were not able to attend, I requested approval for the expenditure and was granted approval via the City Managers office. I actually attended the School Resource Officer management classes as well as a few of the municipal security courses. This was also the conference that the City of Hollister and Hollister Police Department were recognized for security systems, methodology and procedures by the conference organizers.”
The department at the conference received the Security Innovation Gold Award for “Best Public Safety Project”. It was among four state or national awards touted by the city police department in the fall at council meetings.
The chief, in addressing other police-related travel in the records, added how the state requires that each peace officer attend at least 24 hours of continuing professional training every two years.
Aside from public safety, one of the other city departments or enterprise funds with a relatively robust travel budget is at the airport. Its director, Mike Chambless, who wears several hats within city management, said the airport enterprise fund’s annual travel budget was $10,000. He, City Manager Bill Avera and Administrative Analyst Cheryl Mullen were in the group that traveled to Las Vegas for the National Business Aviation Association convention Nov. 17-19.
The trio stayed six nights, Chambless confirmed. They arrived on a Sunday two days before the convention and had a booth takedown that Friday the day after it ended.
Chambless explained by email that a total of six people worked the event including the three Hollister employees and three others from the airport’s fixed-base operator, with those others’ costs covered by the company. He said the conference of 28,000 people ran four days and 12 hours per day, though the program specifies event dates as Nov. 17-19, or three days. There were two people working the city booth and two on the floor in each of two halls, he said.
Chambless said he had suggested that he and Avera go to have “decision makers present” at the convention, and said Mullen went to provide analyst support such as interviewing and collecting information.
Related expenses listed in records included $376.76 for a booth; $197 in airfare for Avera; $166 in airfare for Mullen; $98.28 for a hotel reservation; another $280 hotel charge; a lunch interview for $65; brochure printing for $1,302.13; another hotel charge for $280; a conference charge for $500; Mullen’s lodging at The Venetian for $952; her cab fares for $51.15 and $17.83; another lodging bill listed under Mullen for $144.48; another unspecified hotel charge of $952; cab rides with no name attached for $79.08; FedEx charges for $59.75; a $390 unspecified food charge along with other unspecified food charges in the same listing area of $97.26, $46.27, $53, $105.94, $21.38 and $48; a $735 NBAA convention expense; another $1,097 for printing; an “nbaa southwest” charge of $75; and other unspecified “nbaa las vegas” charges of $397.50 and $144.48.
Finance Director Brett Miller confirmed the city actually doesn’t maintain a specific per diem policy addressing how much food or beverage employees can buy on the city’s dime. He said it works out better for the city than offering a $75 per diem as many organizations do.
“No,” he said regarding caps for food spending, “we reimbursed based on actuals and telling individuals to be reasonable which is far less than per diem.”
Expenses listed by the city for the airport convention—costs shown above added up to $8,732—also did not calculate staff time for the high-level employees working out of Hollister for a week.
Chambless responded to questions and said there were general descriptions on his charges because his “admin” inputs those.
“I really never see these,” Chambless wrote. “I will be asking the Finance Department to set a uniform standard for descriptions on these reports. In the meantime, I have asked her to be more specific. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
Also during those first months of 2015-16, Chambless had expensed $1,297 toward the International Council of Air Shows convention Dec. 6-9 in Las Vegas, but told the Free Lance the trip was cancelled and the money was refunded.
Avera did take one other trip, Sept. 27-30 to Seattle for the International City Managers Association annual conference. The trip’s costs included $869.52 for lodging, $480 for the convention, $169.20 for airfare and other routine costs adding up to about $135.
One of the other most active travelers among Hollister’s department directors has been the new city clerk. Clerk Tom Graves, who joined the city in September, has taken two overnight trips for conferences in California and planned another next spring to Omaha, Nebraska.
According to the records, Graves traveled to Pomona in October for a Master Municipal Clerks Association conference and in early December, along with Assistant City Clerk Christina Black, to a new election law conference in La Jolla. Graves and Black also have booked registration and other expenses totaling $3,920 so far for the May 2016 conference in Omaha for the annual clerks’ convention.
An examination of itemized expenses for Graves included such items as $299.45 for a car rental in Pomona; $378 in airfare to the event; $1,520 paid to the Master Municipal Clerks conference organizers there; $550 attached to the annual League of California Cities conference in San Jose from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 along with $125 for a city clerks’ workshop there.
Items attached to Graves also include a $300 scholarship award for the MMCA event and a $650 award from the Northern California City Clerks Association for training, while those numbers are figured into the city’s total travel-expense tally.
In an email response, Graves explained the level of discretion for his trips:
“The October, 2015 League of CA Cities conference in San Jose was a mandated conference for me because I sat last year as a presidential appointee representing California’s City Clerks on the League’s Employee Relations Committee.
He went on: “The November, 2015 Master Municipal Clerk Academy in Pomona was for CEU credits toward my Master Municipal Clerk accreditation, which I will attain this year. I think I got a small scholarship for that one, which helped to offset some of the costs.”
City employees’ recent travel practices, including those by a fellow council member, have prompted Mayor Ignacio Velazquez to express concern and commit to addressing the issue through policy changes. Velazquez and Councilman Victor Gomez a couple weeks ago spoke out against Councilwoman Mickie Luna going on two trips partially funded by the city, to Palm Springs and La Jolla, without gaining council approval.
They both expressed interest in tightening reins for allowable overnight travel by employees and council members. Velazquez wanted to see more transparency before and after such trips. The mayor added he was unaware of the three employees’ trip to Las Vegas for the airport business convention until they had already left.
“What I want to do is make sure that everybody that goes, that they come back and present what they learned at their trade show,” Velazquez said.
Numbers Snapshot
$952: Hotel rate for each of 2 employees staying six nights at the Venetian in Las Vegas for an airport convention
6: Overnight stays for each of 3 employees in Las Vegas for that 3-day airport convention
$869.52: City manager’s Seattle lodging tab for a Sept. 27-30 International City Managers Association convention
$1,060: Plane tickets for 3 police officials to retrieve award in Houston
$390: Unspecified food charge at Las Vegas airport convention
$3,920: Cost so far for city clerk, assistant’s planned May trip to Omaha clerks’ convention
Read the full breakdown of costs from July 1-Dec. 14 in the PDF at left.

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