In almost every instance, the members spent between $200 and $300 a night for hotel rooms and sometimes ate at nice restaurants using city purchasing cards with a $15,000 credit limit.
It's money well spent, city officials say, as council members and other top city officials attend conferences to stay on top if the issues faced by cities across the country.
"We want them [the council members] to know about running cities," said finance manager Bob Locke.
But others see it as a perk.
"That's absolutely what it is," said former council member Greg Perry, who says he only went to one conference during his four-year term. "When people would come back from League of Cities conferences there was much more talk about the alcohol consumed than ideas for city government."
Council member Laura Macias disagreed, saying, "I actually think there are things I can learn," at the conferences. As mayor last year, she spent the most on travel over the last 17 months: $16,000. She also had the highest limit, with a maximum of $22,000 available for travel.
"The limit is higher than it needs to be," Perry said. "I don't see the conferences helping people to become better council members overall. Time spent reading the budget would be better spent."
Member Matt Pear was the second highest travel spender with $7,500, including the two most expensive hotel visits: $1,321 for five nights at the New Orleans Hilton and $1,338 for a five-night stay at the Washington, D.C. Hilton, both for National League of Cities conferences. The lowest travel spender was Nick Galiotto, who used only $2,271 over the last 17 months.
"Last year as mayor was a great opportunity," Macias said. During a U.S. Conference of Mayors in Los Angeles, which cost $1,650 to get in, "I was able to understand what the U.S. Mayor's Climate Agreement was and was not."
Macias also spent $3,495 to attend a study tour held by the Urban Land Institute, where she toured examples of green building in Cascadia, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, which helped her realize how "doable" green building really is.
In his first four months as mayor, Tom Means hasn't spent nearly as much. Records show only $75 for a plane ticket to Seattle. The San Jose State economics professor says that most of the conferences held by the League of Cities don't have a lot of in depth in the information provided.
"The seminars, a lot of them are on real basic things," he said. "A lot of them want to tell you what great thing they did in their city."
During a trip to a National League of Cities conference in New Orleans, a majority of the council — members Macias, Means, Pear and Jac Siegel — spent $324 for a dinner with three other city officials at Emeril's restaurant. Though a majority of the council was present, it wasn't necessarily a violation of the Brown Act.
"If it's a purely social or ceremonial gathering, then it is not a Brown Act violation, unless a majority of the members get together to discuss the city's business," said Thomas Newton of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
After travel, the next highest expense for council members is computer equipment. For at least 10 years, council members have received $3,600 per four-year-term for computers and related expenses. Of the four members who bought computers — Siegel, Ronit Bryant, Margaret Abe-Koga and Galiotto — Siegel spent the most: $2372 for an Apple iMac and accessories at the Apple store in Palo Alto. Bryant spent the least: $1,250 for a new computer made by her husband's employer, Hewlett Packard. The computers are theirs to keep.
City Council members also still receive free premium tickets to concerts at Shoreline Amphitheatre, which was a controversial topic in 2004 when the value of the tickets, per council member, was estimated at $8,750.
Compared to previous councils, Locke said, this council is relatively frugal, and he noted that city staffers have never had to ask members to slow their spending. Some, like Bryant and Abe-Koga, have given the "gift" of not taking any money at all for phone expenses.
"They are all way under budget," Locke said. In the past, he said, members have put down some "questionable" expenses, but the current members "have good jobs and are trying to be good council members."
This story contains 781 words.
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