ROCK FALLS – A $29 swordfish plate. A $671 tab at a downtown Chicago restaurant that advertises celebrity sightings. Nearly $9,000 in hotel bills for a conference.
Who’s footing the bill? The taxpayers.
In response to a public records request from Sauk Valley Media, the city of Rock Falls provided hundreds of pages of travel records for top officials since 2008.
The travel budget for the City Council and mayor is hefty compared with other cities. Annually, it’s about $15,000 – 3 times larger than Sterling’s and more than 5 times larger than Dixon’s, according to their budgets. Both of those towns are about twice as large as Rock Falls.
And sometimes, Rock Falls spends more than budgeted. In fiscal year 2009, elected officials’ travel spending amounted to more than $23,000.
Rock Falls’ travel budget for elected officials well exceeds its line item for police officers’ meetings, conferences, seminars and schooling, which is about $10,000. Sterling, by comparison, budgets more than $27,000 for the police department’s training and travel, while Dixon sets aside $20,000.
Every year, nearly all council members (except Lee Folsom) attend the Illinois Municipal League conference in downtown Chicago.
In October, the city sent nine officials to the conference – six of the eight council members, then-Mayor David Blanton, then-City Clerk Bill Wescott, and City Administrator Robbin Blackert.
The hotel bill came in at $8,384. Rooms cost $216 a night for the 5-day conference at the Hilton, plus $40-a-day special valet parking (as is common at downtown Chicago hotels).
In 2009, the city paid $8,779 to the Hilton. That year, 10 officials attended.
On one night of the conference, the officials typically get together for a big dinner, usually costing hundreds of dollars. In 2012, they spent $671 at Carmine’s, which promises celebrity sightings and the best people-watching in the city.
But the receipt doesn’t list the number of diners. Blackert said spouses attended, but she didn’t remember how many.
If all spouses attended and the city paid for them, the meal amounted to $37 a person.
“It’s a big table full of people,” Blackert said. “People had regular meals.”
Any alcoholic drinks?
Blackert said she believes everyone had one at Carmine’s.
“If people have a drink with dinner, that’s not an abuse,” she said.
‘They need to police themselves’
Under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the majority of a governing body cannot discuss public business outside of an announced meeting. As for the Municipal League conferences, Blackert said she witnessed no violations.
“In the 2 years I’ve been there at the conference, it’s really been social,” she said. “I haven’t heard any conversations about things that are going on [in city government].”
Maryam Judar, executive director of the Elmhurt-based Citizen Advocacy Center, said colleagues tend to talk about work when they’re together.
“As long as they didn’t talk about city business, they’re good,” she said. “They need to police themselves.”
At the conferences, Blackert said, city officials learn a lot, which benefits residents of Rock Falls. For instance, she said, they picked up much information about ways to attack emerald ash borer, a beetle attacking ash trees. That knowledge, she said, saved the city money.
The conferences are so valuable, she said, that the city has upped its travel budget for the mayor and council to $20,000 a year.
As for the police travel and conferences budget, she said, much of the training doesn’t cost the city anything, including a recent session at the shooting range.
She said the council and mayor’s training budget are probably higher than other towns because they have more responsibilities. Rock Falls runs its own electric and water utilities, while Sterling, for instance, does not.
Usually, a couple of City Council members attend the American Public Power Association lobbying effort in the winter in Washington (the organization covers hotel and airfare). In the summer, two members go to the association’s annual conference, which is held in such places as New Orleans and Nashville.
In 2008, then-Mayor Blanton, Alderman David Hand and then-Electric Director Paul Jakubczak went to Café Promenade at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington. One of the men got swordfish for $29. The other plates were crabcakes ($28) and campanelle pasta ($21).
The entire meal cost taxpayers $167, including a 15 percent tip. They ate at 9 p.m., but the receipt lists no alcoholic drinks.
That was a rare instance in which city records showed an itemized bill for a pricey meal. That’s apparently because it was paid for with cash.
That’s the way officials pay for most of their smaller meals. For instance, taxpayers can easily find out whether an alderman got a Big Mac at McDonald’s. But for the high-dollar expenses, the only record available is a credit card receipt, which includes a total cost but not an itemized list.
Chicago pushes up conference costs
The costs of the Chicago conferences, Blackert said, have struck her as high, but aldermen have told her they find the meetings valuable.
“If we sign up the IML conference, it’s at the Hilton in downtown,” she said. “Why do they choose to do it in downtown for all of the municipalities, I don’t know. I don’t think we should prohibit aldermen from getting the training they need.
“We do have our own utilities. There is a lot more education. They are executives over utility companies,” Blackert said. “That’s more of a learning curve.”
Alderman Daehle Reitzel agreed.
“I haven’t gone to a [Municipal League] conference where I haven’t brought something back that saves the town money,” he said.
He brought up a number of cost-saving ideas, including a piece of equipment that increases the efficiency of patching streets.
Reitzel added that aldermen don’t turn in some of their travel expenses for reimbursement.
“If it got to the point where the city couldn’t afford the Municipal League conference,” he said, “I’d pay my own way.”
Mayor Bill Wescott said elected officials go to different Municipal League sessions at the same time, so the city government as a whole doesn’t miss any valuable information.
As it is, he said, an alderman makes $300 a month and works about 50 hours during that time, which figures out to $6 an hour. The dinners at conferences, he said, are a “small amount of payback.”
“The conferences are very costly, without a doubt,” the mayor said. “The biggest part of the cost is where the meetings are held at – Chicago.”