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Sunshine Week Project: local leaders traveling with public money

Published: Mar. 12, 2015 at 9:49 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 23, 2015 at 3:07 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - You've probably noticed that WECT has put a priority on investigative reporting over the last year, redoubling our commitment to following how your tax money is spent, and asking tough questions of local leaders.

We were one of 6 news outlets across the state recently asked to partner with WRAL in a Sunshine Week project, focusing on transparency in government.

The assignment: to analyze the travel records of local officials who travel on the public dime.

Since we've already done some extensive coverage travel expenses at some local agencies, we shifted our focus to other public entities that have not received coverage. UNCW, The City of Wilmington, and New Hanover County Schools were all quick to respond to our request for travel records.

UNC Wilmington

By and large, their expenses traveling with public money were what you might expect. The only possible exception was the amount of travel incurred by interim UNCW Chancellor William Sederburg. In his first 6 months on the job, Sederburg spent $11,000 on travel.

His expenses ranged from hotel rooms to registration fees to mileage reimbursement or airline tickets for about a dozen conferences and meetings he traveled to attend.

Some trips were fairly close to home, like a Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill. Other trips were out of state, like a trip to Nashville for a CEOs for Cities conference and to New York for the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities conference.

While most of Sederburg's charges are mundane, there are examples of an occasional splurge. Shortly after taking the job, Chancellor Sederburg hosted a dinner meeting at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill for several members of the board of trustees, one of their spouses, and two members of outside education associations.

While discussing university business, the party of 7 spent $516 on a dinner that included lobster, scallops, salads and desert, plus a $90 bottle of wine along with other alcohol charges.

A University spokesperson says the bottle of wine was ordered before Sederburg arrived at dinner, and he was not aware of the price until the bill arrived. The meal was paid for with UNCW trust funds as a business entertainment expense, rather than state funds that cover most other travel expenses.

On numerous occasions while traveling, Sederburg paid for his meals with his own money. We're told by a source inside the university that he also regularly pays for meals for staff members out of his own pocket.

Perks of the chancellor's job include housing and a vehicle. His car is modest - a Volkswagen Passat. The university pays $363 dollars a month to lease it for Sederburg. He does qualify for mileage reimbursement of 30 cents a mile, but is required to pay for his own gas, maintenance and insurance out of his own pocket.

The university also pays $705 a month for the Chancellor to have a corporate membership at The Country Club of Landfall and another $60 a month for his membership at the City Club. A UNCW spokeswoman says it is standard in the UNC system for Chancellors to have club memberships as an employment benefit for university business.

While these travel expenses may seem high compared to other elected leaders in our area, Sederburg's travel spending is in line with the previous chancellor of UNCW.

In his last 2 years on the job, ex-Chancellor Gary Miller spent about $22,000 a year traveling on University business.

New Hanover County Schools

Tim Markley, superintendent of New Hanover County Schools, did not have any particularly noteworthy expenditures. He spent just over $5,000 on travel last year. He was given a per diem rate for his meals, received mileage reimbursement for driving his own car to conferences, and typically stayed in moderate hotels.

Markley attended about a dozen conferences and meetings during the last calendar year, including a training event for the North Carolina School Board Association in Raleigh, and a meeting with Southeastern Regional Superintendents in Clinton.

City of Wilmington

The City of Wilmington sets a travel budget of $3500 for the mayor and $2750 for council members, and stayed within budget.

Rather than putting meals on city-issued credit cards while traveling, as county commissioners have done while traveling over the last year, city council members are paid a per diem for their meals. They can spend that money as they wish, and do not have to turn in receipts detailing what they ate. Most of city council's other expenses are for transportation and hotel rooms.

Saffo spent $3,713 attending conferences in Greensboro, Asheville, Austin, TX, and Washington, DC.* With $3,680 in travel expenses, Councilwoman Laura Padgett was the second biggest spender. She sits on a national transportation board which bumps her allowable travel budget up to $3,750. Her travel included trips to Greensboro, Minneapolis, Austin, and Washington, DC. Councilman Charlie Rivenbark spent $1,641 for a conference in Austin. Councilman Earl Sheridan, who sits on a state board, spent $1,193 during 5 separate trips to Raleigh and Greensboro. Council members Kevin O'Grady, Neil Anderson, and Margaret Haynes did not incur any travel expenses last year.

*The city budgets by the fiscal year rather than the calendar year. While Saffo was slightly over budget by our calendar year measure, he was within budget during the fiscal year.

Sunshine Week: Responsiveness

Part of the goal of Sunshine Week is to test the responsiveness of public agencies. UNCW was the quickest to respond, with an immediate acknowledgment of our request. The general counsel for UNCW sent the full records on a Saturday evening, only two days later.

The City of Wilmington also responded immediately, with a spokesperson asking some follow up questions. The records were sent five days after the original request. New Hanover County Schools responded eleven days after our original request, but acknowledged the request and explained the delay early on in the process.

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