My Turn, Your Turn: City council trip to DC - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

4.14.09

My Turn, Your Turn: City council trip to DC

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By Gary McNair - bio|email

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - I really didn't really have a great topic for this commentary - nothing fun or controversial was coming to mind, but then it was like the heavens parted and the Wilmington City Council dropped one in my lap.

By now you know about the $19,000 city officials spent in Washington, DC.  Yes - taxpayers paid to send the city council members, city clerk and city manager to the nation's capital for a conference. 

We paid for hotel rooms that cost nearly 3 hundred dollars a night. We also paid for some pretty high priced meals - which included a few spouses, $400 mileage reimbursements for those who drove, not to mention the price of plane tickets for those who flew.

The city leaders will tell you they learned a lot and we will benefit from them attending this conference, but I'm having trouble understanding this. In a time when jobs are being slashed, when fire stations may be closed, when areas are being annexed - was this trip really necessary?  And if it was, did we have to send nine people? 

Now I do appreciate the help when I'm struggling for a good commentary topic, but next time please try to give me something good to talk about. 

That's my turn.  Now it's your turn.  To comment on this subject, or anything else, email me at yourturn@wect.com.  

 

Viewers' Response:

During times of despair and joblessness at its highest rate in years you would think that the City Council would use better judgment in the amount of money spent especially when we, the tax payers flip the bill.  Why can't they be like the rest of us - if you have to eat out be more frugal,  hotel - least expensive.  I am so upset over the way our very own council took our money and did not care what they spent.  I truly believe we need representation in Washington but why did so many go and why should I pay for their spouse???

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This city council does nothing but what they want to do.  Over and over, they fail to represent their constituents.  As a matter of fact, once they get elected, they totally forget how they got there.  Their arrogance is only exceeded by their egos - which obviously has no limit.

Time and time, they tell us they know what's best for the city.  Who ever told them that????  They don't know anything - because this city is in a mess.  From the park bonds to CFCC bonds, it's a rip-off of citizens, and the city council knows this but does not care.

Annexation issue isn't an issue with them.  Their vote is to put it through and continue taxation without representation. 

The convention center, and we will pay for this one, is the same fiasco.  Who wants to convene downtown where its dirty and dangerous.  When I asked them, they told me the NC Bar Association wants a place to convene.

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I strongly disagree with the financial lashing of the council.

I ALSO disagree with the council's excuse of having to go to these establishments on order to receive additional funding.

The HONEST answer is..... "If you travel to the business district in Metro DC, you know that coffee is $5.00 a cup, Dinner sides are $9-$15 ea (al la carte), entrees are going to be a minimum of $20. It is the price of doing business. There is nothing cheap in DC."  During the week, hotels range from $300-$600 per night depending on what function is where in the Nation's Capital.

Unfortunately in life, especially in business appearance is everything. I am not saying that is correct, but it is the way things are.

Had the council members opted for something of of the dollar menu at McDonald's, they would have been looked at much differently.. They were representing the City of Wilmington and Wilmington would have looked like a "Cheap" local because of the presentation of council members.

Also, if you look at the receipts and estimate that the normal per Diem of an employee is $80-$100 per day depending on the business, then I cannot by these points see where anything they did is so wrong except for not going to somewhere like the Capital Grille which would have been the same cost as Chris Ruth's and much better food and service.

I would be sacrificed if on business if I decided to leave people I was lobbying with (in the technical industry) and went out of the metro area so somewhere that was less costly. My company would have looked cheap, my professionalism would have gone down hill with my colleagues and my time would have been wasted with two hours of Metro travel to save $10 or less. Your story holds no validity with business travelers and itheir trip s just a cost of doing business.It seemed like the story was attacking and unfair but then again instead of "We got 2 million for the housing authority!" why couldn't the answer have been honest with the simple fact that everything in the DC Metro district is horribly overpriced". Were their breakout sessions for each council member that directly coresponded to his/her position? If so, then it was most likely wort it.. If not then yes.. The delegation should have only sent the top 5 delegates. Assumably the spouses who went paid their own way and just out of curiosity, of those who drove, how many carpooled together?

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I moved to Wilmington in June of 2004. I needed to provide alternative living arrangements for my teenage son. If not for the fact that Verizon Wireless was opening a new call center,  I would not have been able to secure a decent job here. I managed to endure three years at Verizon and now I'm unemployed and can't find a decent job in Wilmington despite the fact that I am highly qualified. My impression of Wilmington is that it's a city that has an inflated view of itself.

Sure, there are many reasons why many folks who are financially secure want to live here. What about those of us who are struggling in this economic environment? Take a look at the indigent community and the incidence of crimes.

This report about the city council only justifies my decision to leave Wilmington and move back to Greensboro where there are more job opportunities and a more realistic view on the part of local politicians.

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Ok,  maybe 9 people didn't need to go, but how many would have been ok with the media?  Maybe they didn't need to get $300.00 a night hotel rooms, but what price would have been ok?  Was this hotel within walking distance of the conference, and has anyone figured out what the cost difference would have been if they stayed further away at, say a $150.00 per night hotel, and added up the cost of rental cars, gas, and time wasted trying to find their way around the city?  Did anyone bother to research the going price for a hotel in the area of town they needed to be in?  Maybe they didn't need to run up $400.00 - $500.00 meal tabs, but did anyone break that down into cost per person for those meals?  One bill was for $496.59, let's say $500.00. That was for a party of 10, so the cost was about $50.00 per person, including tax & tip....doesn't sound all that bad to me. The other two dinners cost $47 per person & $34 per person, and the one lunch came out to $13.48 per person....again, doesn't sound all that bad to me, you can easily spend $13 for lunch at Cracker Barrel!! There also seems to be a couple of breakfasts & lunches that the tax payers weren't charged for or the group didn't eat then. What dollar amount would have been acceptable for them to spend for their meals while in Washington, lobbying to obtain stimulus package money for us?  Mayor Saffo said that the reason for this trip was to try to obtain as big a part of the stimulous package for Wilmington as possible.  He also said that this was the one opportunity there was going to be to try to get as much money for our city as possible.  However, it seems that this wasn't a good enough reason for the Mayor & City Council to go to this conference, much less (God forbid) have a nice meal or two.  Have you checked out the salary for being the Mayor of Wilmington, and the pile of doodie that he has to deal with, lately?  One person said, couldn't they have taken half the council instead of the whole council and gotten the same results?  Well, my question is, is it worth losing stimulus money to see whether or not a smaller showing from Wilmington, NC. can obtain the same amount of money from the stimulus package?  Personally, I feel that if it means getting more stimulus money for our area, the better & more professional showing we make, the better!!  The thing that bothers me here is the fact that no matter what the mayor & city council did or didn't do, they would have been doing the wrong thing in someone's eyes.  If that someone is a reporter, well then it's going to be spread all over the news, over and over again, often in a snide, sarcastic, or laughing manner.  If they hadn't gone, "because of the financial crisis", and then lost out on any of the monies they could have brought to the city by going to Washington, DC and networking with the powers that be, well then the media would have been tearing them apart for not going after the money that is so desperately needed in the region.  Frankly I am sick and tired of the media doing nothing but sitting there, ready to pounce and then whipping the city into a frenzy over a topic that involves our government, before they even bother to check all the facts.  I can't believe that nobody bothered to do the math & only looked at the seemingly large totals rung up for food, large until you divided the bills by the number of people who ate those meals.  Also, on the following night's newscast, your station gleefully gave the county officials time to tell us how they had gone to a similiar seminar and only sent 2 people, who turned in a $3000.00 bill for their trip.  What fun to add fuel to the fire, huh?  Let me ask you this....if in the future it turns out that our mayor & city council managed to help our city obtain a substancial amount from the stimulus package, which I am sure will be welcomed by most in this city, are you going to just as gleefully report that at the seminar they attended in Washington DC, (you know the one where you got the city all fired up about their meal bills),  they helped procure a large amount of stimulus money?  Are you going to report their efforts, and subsequent rewards, in the same overzealous manner?

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I agree with you 100%.  I do not understand why the city needed to send 9 people including spouses to DC while staying and eating at top end establishments at the expense of tax payers.  I just learned tonight that New Hanover County sent 2 officials to DC and they only spend $3,000 dollars. 

Currently, I'm a New Hanover County tax payer and do not have any problems with their spending and appreciate them being budget minded during this difficult economic time.  Unfortunately, I'm in the portion of the county that the city is currently trying to annex.  Since the city it looking at slashing jobs, police officers and fire stations, I think the $19,000 would have been better spent toward providing services to the soon to be annexed portion of the county.  With this kind of spending it is no wonder they need to annex portions of the county in order to obtain more tax dollars. 

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I follow you and WECT every day. All I can say is that I'm glad my wife and I don't live in Wilmington. This is the biggest outrage I have ever scene. We are both management people and are disapointed that it takes nine people as well as family members to look out for the best interests of Wilmington. Do the family members who attended have any say in the way the goverment is run in Wilmington?. My past experience has shown that in these types of trips that the spouses and significant others pay their own way.

I only hope this trip and investment for the city that has a significant deficit pays off !

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General Manager Gary McNair was exactly on point with his comments regarding the $19,000 of expense paid by taxpayers for the Mayor and Council (and guests) to enjoy their recent trip to Washington, D.C. If the purpose of this trip was to secure some Federal funds for the City of Wilmington, that is well worth an investment, but it would have taken fewer people and less money to achieve that objective. The Mayor's comment that, as long as more than $19,000 was secured for the city, then the expenditure was worthwhile was a defensive and weak rationalization. The objective should be to spend the least amount of money to gain the greatest financial advantage for the city. This should not be viewed from the distorted prism of just trying to cover expenses. To me, the worst of this is that these city leaders, like some business leaders, just don't seem to "get it."  We are in the midst of financial upheaval, with people's futures hanging in the balance. City leaders' insensitivity to the prevailing financial environment in Wilmington (and throughout the nation) is more than evident in huge expense tabs for example at expensive restaurants before they return to the city to decide what positions to eliminate, for example in public safety. While on a smaller scale, to be sure, this is similar in (lack of) thought and judgement by the auto company leaders who flew in separate private jets to the first hearings in Washington to consider huge bailout dollars for their companies.

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As a retired state employee, whenever the state of NC was to pay for a trip I took, I was repaid a per diem or a maximum daily amount for transportation, meals, and hotel.  Should I exceed the amount allotted, it came out of my pocket.  I fail to understand why the same rules are not utilized in city and county government.  Under no circumstances would a state employee include a spouse/friend/partner in their per diem. If my spouse accompanied me, we would pay those expenses ourselves.

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Being a fellow member of the broadcasting community I am deeply concerned with your tuesday evening diatribe against the members of our city council. Not only do I think this is an alarmist witchhunt and exercise in sensationalist journalism, but also a sad excuse to create a fervor  for  lack of something 'news-worthy' . For you to confirm this by saying that in your quest for salacious material that this story of misappropriated funds fell like manna from heaven on your lap is proof positive that you have fallen into that shallow realm yellow journalism and hype-oriented reporting. Need I remind you that the responsibility of the media is to provide unbiased, straight information to the general public, not to obfuscate the truth with  uninformed  and thoughtless righteous indignation. I am curious how thoroughly you examined the receipts and put them into context. It does not require a great deal of imagination to see how twenty-thousand dollars can be spent for ten or so council persons on a trip to washington, d.c. First, transportation. The only matter of transportation is that our representatives travel safely. Whatever cost we incur for their safety is an acceptable one. Second, hotel and lodging. Having almost been killed in D.C. by a random assailant, I can attest that the smartest and safest way to stay in D.C. is to find a higher priced hotel in a more expensive area of the Capitol. Once again, safety, but also, shouldn't we desire our representatives to sojourn in comfortability, to sleep well and be sharp when requesting federal funds.  Third, meals. When business is being discussed, the restaurant's environment is crucial. Places like Ruth Cris may be expense but with that price tag comes a pleasant dining environment where business can be conducted without the interruption of inexperienced waiters, poor food, and obstreperous guests. Fourth, did we need to send so many members and there families. Of course. The more individuals vying for our cause, having combined intelligence, and safe-gaurding each other against personal agendas, are all good things and are democracy in action. As for their families coming along, I should only hope our mayor  takes his wife with him, for both support and personal council. In an age where politicians philandering is commonplace, why would we discourage this? 

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As a non-resident of Wilmington, I sympathize with the Mayor and City Council at finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to justify spending almost $20,000 to send nine people to Washington, D. C. to take part in a conference.  It's bad enough in normal times, but it's even worse when budgets are tight.

As a former municipal employee at the department head level, I participated in many similar conferences and seminars while I was actively employed.  Most such conferences are generally structured to provide one general meeting and then break down into numerous areas of interest in which presentations are made concerning problems commonly shared by most of the municipalities attending.

The nine people involved only had to have one of them bring back a single idea on how to solve a vexing and potentially expensive problem that Wilmington was trying to figure out how best to solve in order to save many times the total cost of the trip spent on the entire group.  Stated another way, conferences like that are an investment in future savings for the taxpayers.  

It might be easy to say "stay home and save the money", but when you bring back an idea that saves the taxpayers $50,000 (and often more), it gives the $20,000 cost of the trip the look of a pretty good investment.

Reinventing the wheel can be pretty expensive when you don't have a clue on how to do it.  Such clues are often available at conferences such as those.

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The city council's arrogance and ignorance is overwhelming.  Given all of the heat that Wall Streets have taken over their actions, what was the city council thinking?  Obviously they weren't.

First, why did 9 people have to make that trip?  That was overkill.

Second, why were spouse's meals paid for by the city?  That is flagrant.

I agree with the mayor that the trip was necessary to try to get money sent our way.  However, the cost incurred was over the top and shows a disregard for a budget deficit.  Are these the same people who are going to determine where to cut costs to balance the budget?   What is wrong with that picture?

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I understand that the City Council needs to make political connections in Washington in an attempt to make the government aware of programs, projects and other issues that our city might need assistance with. However, their spending was irresponsible and greatly disrespectful to all of the tax-payers in Wilmington, especially at a time when they are planning to make budget cuts that may include cuts to our fire and police force. men and women who already do not get paid enough for the serive they provide our community. The council members should be ashamed of themselves as they could have been much more responsible in their spending. $19,000 is careless and excessive. They should have to reimburse the tax-payers for those expenses.

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To me this is the biggest non story of the year. I would like to thank the city council for their efforts to bring more money to Wilmington. Just look at recent road projects around Wilmington. Do you think the kind of money needed to complete MLK parkway came from Leland? You can not sit in your backyard, hoping and praying that federal money will fall in your lap. It is easy to fire up local folks by pointing out how much it cost to do business.After all, there a motels on Market Street for 49 dollars a night.They would rather have their reps travel by Greyhound bus and stay in some seed bag motel, the way they do. Right! Or better yet why go at all. Just stay here and listen to local tax payers complain that our mayor and city council isn't doing anything to help bring jobs to Wilmington. Fact is, this was a very cheap trip  that could have huge payoffs in Wilmington's future. So get over it Wilmington, Prices have gone up over the last sixty years or so. Maybe now our local media can go back to stirring up locals with a missing dog story or two. We all love those.

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