11:18 PM PDT on Saturday, September 25, 2010

By JULISSA McKINNON
The Press-Enterprise

PDFs: View travel and expense forms from Menifee’s mayor and council members
Councilman John Denver | Mayor Wallace Edgerton | Councilwoman Darcy Kuenzi | Councilman Scott Mann | Councilman Fred Twyman

Some Menifee City Council members are calling for tighter controls over travel expenses after being publicly criticized for poor record-keeping and high spending on trips.

At a meeting last week, resident Beth Green called for the resignation of Councilman John Denver because he had billed the city for more than $1,200 for mileage around Menifee and area cities. He charged for gas and meals to represent the city at events such as Quail Valley Fire Department breakfasts and Rotary Club meetings.

Council members in the 2-year-old city exceeded their travel budget both years, according to City Hall records. To date, they have spent $31,360 on mileage, meals and hotel stays while attending meetings and conferences.

The public’s patience for what it sees as lax spending and travel by elected officials is falling fast, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Stern said the renewed awareness stems mainly from the recent scandal in the Los Angeles County city of Bell.

“Secondly is the fact that every dollar counts these days,” Stern said.

The public should be concerned about “extravagant expenses,” for example, a stay in an $800-a-night hotel, he said. Costs for hotels and meals are normal when officials attend conferences, Stern said.

While some Menifee City Council members defend their expenses, others said there’s room for reform. Councilwoman Darcy Kuenzi said that requiring expense forms to be submitted within 30 days would fall in line with most businesses. Currently, council members can seek reimbursement for any expenses, regardless of the date.

Mayor Wallace Edgerton suggested that council members report publicly about what they accomplished or learned on a trip.

expenses detailed

Menifee council members exceeded the council’s budget for expenses in 2008-09, spending $14,752 when $7,500 was budgeted. In 2009-10, council expenses totaled $14,484 — beyond the $12,000 allotted for travel, conferences, meals and mileage.

However, council expenses fell in between that of neighboring cities. While Menifee spent $31,361 from fall 2008 to the present, council members in the larger city of Murrieta spent $53,176. In Perris, with a smaller population of about 55,000, council members tallied expenses of $26,755 during that time.

In Menifee, some potential breaches of the city’s policy on travel, meal, lodging and mileage reimbursement occurred. Records show, for example:

A charge for an $85 dinner at the McCormick and Schmick’s restaurant in San Jose by Denver during a 2009 League of California Cities conference. City policy states that officials’ meal expenses should not exceed $65 a day.

Denver charged the city for half of his cell phone bill every month from December 2008 to May 2009 for a total of $406. At the time, city policy on reimbursable expenses did not include cell phone use.

Denver defended both expenses, saying that city business often is discussed over meals at conferences. He recalled that the then-City Manager George Wentz chose the upscale seafood eatery.

He called the $65 per day meal limit more of a “guideline.”

Denver said the city’s finance director at the time, Misty Cheng, approved his cell phone charges. No policy existed until last year, when the Menifee finance committee granted a $75-a-month cell phone allowance to council members.

“I was saying half of my phone bill is for city stuff, but it’s more than half,” Denver said. “It seems to me it’s fair that I should be paid nothing for being a council member, but I don’t think it’s fair to my family that it should cost my family money.”

document questions

Other council members had questionable charges to the city.

For example, Councilman Scott Mann’s expense reports showed that he returned from a two-day trip to Washington D.C., through Moline, Ill., where he visited family and stayed for three days. Mann went to the nation’s capital with Wentz to lobby federal representatives for stimulus and other funding for Quail Valley sewers and a future Romoland flood control project.

Mann said he reimbursed the city for the leg of the flight that took him to Moline, though the city could produce no documentation of Mann’s repayment.

“I paid for the leg from Chicago to Moline,” Mann said. “City staff did poor recordkeeping at the time and it should have been better documented.”

He added that he considers himself a “very experienced government traveler,” and for years he ran a $24 million travel budget for the naval air station on North Island in San Diego County.

Mann suggested that the city adopt federal travel regulations that specify maximum daily meal and lodging allowances for specific areas around the country.

Councilman Fred Twyman received city reimbursement for roundtrip mileage to and from Las Vegas when he drove there in May with his son-in-law but flew back.

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