On Feb. 27, three representatives of the San Mateo County Harbor District got on airplanes for a trip across the country to the California Marine Affairs and Navigation Conference in Washington, D.C. The trip at taxpayers’ expense was preapproved by Harbor Commissioners, two of whom made the trip themselves. The estimate of expenses: $7,000.
It caught our attention for several reasons. Why would something called the California Marine Affairs and Navigation Conference take place in Washington, D.C.? And, why, in a time of remote meetings, would a San Mateo County board have to send three representatives cross-country at taxpayers’ expense? Also: This conference has raised eyebrows before.
You should also know we made the public records request in the midst of Sunshine Week. That is the one week of the year during which newspapers and public information advocates everywhere celebrate the necessity of various public records requirements in the United States. It felt like an opportune time to make such a request of the Harbor District, which collects taxes across the county as well as fees at the two county harbors.
What did we find? About what you would expect. Detailed lists of expenses for flights, hotel rooms, meals and cab rides. Not much looked out of the ordinary. We got reports from Harbor District General Manager Jim Pruett and Commissioners William Zemke and Virginia Chang-Kiraly. We should note the district was partially responsive to our request in only two days. That is terrific and much quicker than the response to most requests made under the California Public Records Act.
Zemke’s total expense back to taxpayers was $1,574.70. Pruett expensed $1,858.74. Chang-Kiraly’s report is similar, as she spent $1,829.59, and together the expenses were within the projected figure that the Commission approved earlier this year. Zemke and Pruett made the case for the trip by noting the importance of personal interactions with congressional staffers holding the purse strings for things like dredging projects.
You might consider such questions picky, uncomfortable or even impolite. If so, please know we picked this one trip for a reason. Twenty years ago, complaints over expenses for an analogous trip caused an open battle among commissioners.
In 2003, the Harbor Commission rejected then-Commissioner Sally Campbell’s request to be reimbursed $2,231.08 after she attended the California Marine Affairs and Navigation Conference in Washington, D.C. Then-Commission Chair Jim Tucker had his concerns. Why? She billed taxpayers for an eight-night stay at a two-day conference. “It appears to me like a vacation for her,” he said in 2003.
Campbell was subsequently outraged and threatened to sue for the expenses, and so on. "I'm not debating this any further," Campbell said then. "I either get the full amount reimbursed to me by tomorrow or you will be talking to my lawyer."
Suffice to say, we aren’t the first ones with questions about a trip to Washington, D.C., at public expense.
We don’t think your public servants took a vacation at your expense this time. We believe all three Harbor District representatives are conscientious public servants. No one here thinks they were visiting the Smithsonian or touring the White House on your time. We believe them when they say they had important face-to-face meetings with decision makers who will be signing off on important local issues like dredging Pillar Point Harbor.
That is their job. Our job is to keep them honest and working in the sunshine.
— Clay Lambert
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