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12/08/13 - CONTRA COSTA TIMES -  Richmond leaders' China, Cuba trips under scrutiny 

By Robert Rogers 

RICHMOND -- At a time when the city is struggling to balance its budget,
local taxpayers have sent elected officials and city staff to China and
Cuba in recent weeks on trips that have included significant sightseeing
activities in addition to forging diplomatic links with sister cities.

A five-member delegation, including Councilmen Nat Bates and Corky Boozé,
embarked on a 15-day sister-city trip to China and Japan last month paid
for to the tune of $36,120 by Richmond taxpayers.

The rub, critics said, was not just the total expense, but that the amounts
exceeded the $5,000 annual travel allotment for each council member and
that most of the trip was not spent at the Chinese sister city, Zhoushan,
but crisscrossing the country enjoying the historic and cultural sites.
Richmond Councilmember Courtland "Corky" Boozé (Ray Chavez/Staff file)

In addition, the total price tag for the trip was approved by the City
Council in October with no discussion about the extra tourist perks it
would be funding. The unanimous approval came three months after city
finance officials cut the delegation a check to make the travel
arrangements, a retroactive approval prohibited by the city charter.

Some of the most pointed critics of the trip are Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and
Councilman Tom Butt, longtime rivals of Bates and Boozé who embarked on
their own trip to Cuba this week. Both said it was inexcusable for their
colleagues to exceed their annual travel budgets.

"I am concerned," McLaughlin said. "Council members should not be utilizing
city funds outside of their travel budgets for trips, and city funds should
not be used for sightseeing engagements."

On Thursday, Butt and McLaughlin departed, along with two other city staff
members, for a trip to Richmond's sister city in Cuba, Regla, for a
council-approved price of $13,000. Butt said he would self-finance his
portion of the trip.

Jeff Shoji, community advocate in the Mayor's Office, said McLaughlin's
share of the trip cost $4,222.

The itinerary for the 11-day trip includes days of cultural excursions and
museum visits, including a stop at the Che Guevara Memorial and Monument.
Richmond City Councilmember Nat Bates (Bob Larson/Staff file)

The trips, while constituting a sliver of Richmond's $140 million general
fund budget, come amid a series of grim financial assessments over the
summer that required the city to dip into its reserve to close a
multimillion-dollar deficit.

City Manager Bill Lindsay said the payment for the China trip should not
have been made before City Council approval.

"We need to shore that up," he said.

The trip was marred by overcharges and process breakdowns.

Boozé and Bates' share of the trip was $5,760 each, according to city
records, exceeding the annual $5,000 travel allowance. Boozé used his city
credit card on the trip to tack on $1,169 in additional charges, including
$530 for laundry services, $473 to transport excess baggage and other
charges for gifts and foods at places like Fat Matts Rib Shack during a
layover in Atlanta.

The extra charges will be picked up by the Richmond port's budget, Lindsay
said, which is also funded by local taxpayers.

Boozé could not be reached for comment. Bates defended the charges, noting
that city leaders had a joint mission -- building their sister city
relationships and nurturing ties with Chinese business interests that may
be potential port customers.

Because of that, Bates said, it was appropriate to max out the annual
allowance and have the excess charges paid for the by the port.

"We're out there negotiating deals that can benefit the city to the tune of
several millions," Bates said. "To make money, you have to spend money."

Bates said the costs and cultural itinerary of the Cuba trip did not bother
him.

"I don't have a problem with it, it's part of our sister city program in a
global world," Bates said. "But if you live in a glass house, don't throw
rocks."

Lindsay said he recently met with City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller and
Finance Director James Goins to discuss the China trip, the retroactive
council approval of its cost and the city's travel policies.

"We have some matters and guidelines to review, and we may come back to the
council with some recommended modifications," Lindsay said.

The China trip has also cast new light on the Richmond port, which is owned
by the city and has seen growth in imports in recent years. A 2011 audit
concluded that the port's financial record-keeping was rife with errors and
recommended more stringent outside review.

Among the documents obtained through a public records request are receipts
indicating port officials bought about $50 worth of wine for a meeting with
Chinese officials in Richmond earlier this year, and contracts totaling
nearly $20,000 for services provided by Boozé's son, Kevin. City policy
prohibits using any taxpayer funds on alcohol.

Lindsay said he was unaware of the alcohol purchase but said he would
investigate.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com.
Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers. 


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