December 31, 2009 in Washington Voices

Pre-meeting meals valuable, mayor says

Munson says tax money is well-spent on dinners
By The Spokesman-Review

Expense vouchers reveal that Spokane Valley City Council members eat more at home than on the road.

Since the city was formed six years ago, the council has gathered for dinner before each of its meetings.

The practice has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars a year, but Mayor Rich Munson believes the money was well spent. It’s harder to be hostile after a friendly meal, he said, paraphrasing retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said earlier this year that O’Connor still occasionally drops in for discussions of lawyers, children, grandchildren, museum exhibitions, the theater – and O’Connor’s travels.

“I think it’s very important that the council form a bond of friendship rather than confrontation,” Munson said. “I remember hearing about Dick (Denenny) falling off his motorcycle (when he ran into a deer) and Diana (Wilhite) building her house.”

City Manager Dave Mercier and about a half-dozen senior staff members who attend council meetings also break bread with the council.

Unlike the Supreme Court, the Spokane Valley City Council is bound by the Washington Open Public Meetings Act. A Yoke’s deli coffee klatch of Positive Change candidates will be subject to the law as well when members of the group take office in January.

The law prohibits discussion of public business in private meetings such as the council dinners, but Munson said the council has steered clear of forbidden topics. Staff members also refrained from talking shop, Munson said.

“There was more than enough conversation without having to talk about city business,” he said.

On a couple of occasions, Munson recalls someone saying, “Hey, guys,” if a conversation strayed out of bounds.

Usually, Munson said, “if we talked about anything (related to city business), it was what we heard the commissioners were doing or what we had learned at one of our committee meetings.”

The mayor said city officials did “some pretty deep research” to determine that the dinners would be legal before implementing them.

Munson said he wouldn’t have objected if members of the public had been invited to observe the dinner gatherings, but they were never advertised as public meetings. There was nothing secret about the meetings because the council passed an ordinance in 2003 to allow them, he said.

He said one reason for eating at City Hall was that, with meetings that start at 6 p.m., some council members had little time to eat after getting off work. One of those was former Councilman Steve Taylor, who Munson said usually showed up a bit late for dinner.

Later still, when Taylor’s wife got off work, she would sometimes stop in for leftovers, Munson recalled.

“We didn’t buy anything really extravagant,” Munson said. “It was pretty basic fare.”

Expense vouchers on file by the end of November show the city spent at least $5,900 on meals this year. The food came from several local restaurants and the Beacon Hill catering service, which had a contract to serve the city’s CenterPlace Regional Event Center.

Some of the City Hall meals were rounded out with small purchases at area grocery stores.

Restaurant charges often ranged from $150 to $240. Some of the providers included Cuppa Joe’s, Honeybaked Ham, Panda Express, Quizno’s, Ferrante’s Café and High Nooner.

For the council’s annual retreat at Denenny’s Idaho lake cabin, he bought $261 worth of food and sundries at Costco and local grocery stores at city expense.

In comparison, vouchers show Mercier and council members spent $2,601 for other local meals and $1,072, for a total of $3,673. However, it is difficult to draw precise amounts from the records, which can’t always be tied to individuals or calendar years.

Some conference expenses were incurred by an administrative assistant on behalf of various council members.

Also, the vouchers include some 2008 expenditures that were carried into 2009, and probably lack some 2009 expenditures that will be reported next year.

For example, this year’s vouchers include all of Councilwoman Diana Wilhite’s 2008 mileage, but they show no out-of-town meals for some council members who attended out-of-town events.

Munson believes council members have been frugal with their expense accounts.

“We didn’t go to a meeting unless we thought we could bring back something useful,” he said.

Given that convention hotels are expensive, there is nothing startling in the expenses council members and Mercier reported this year.

Mercier ate $20.90 worth of ribs and had a $2.95 salad at an Outback Steakhouse in Tukwila recently during a Washington Cities Insurance Authority board meeting, but Spokane Valley hasn’t paid for any expensive wine. No wine at all, in fact.

Records show the city Finance Department enforces a policy of not paying for alcoholic beverages. In the past year, the department also refused to reimburse Taylor for a $25.60 airline travel insurance policy.

Munson said most council members usually attend the National League of Cities winter conference, which was in San Antonio last month. Munson and Wilhite – both lame ducks – went to the conference with Rose Dempsey, Bill Gothmann and Gary Schimmels.

In addition, four or so council members typically go to the NLC’s spring conference in Washington, D.C., where delegates descend on Congress to plead for their cities, Munson said. He said he decided the gathering is ineffective and stopped going.

The whole council generally goes to Olympia in January or February for the City Legislative Action Conference to discuss lobbying goals of the Association of Washington Cities, Munson said. Delegates also visit legislators and attend classes on changes in state law and topics such as how to run meetings, balance a budget or deal with the press.

Typically, the mayor and at least one council member also go to Olympia as part of a Greater Spokane Inc. lobbying trip.

Also, Munson said, he and Denenny accompanied Mercier and two senior staff members to an NLC “Green Cities” conference in Portland in April because they expect climate-change legislation to affect Spokane Valley.

“Climate change is a train that has left the station and, if you don’t get on it, you’re going to be left behind,” Munson said.

Mercier also attends a number of Western Washington conferences for city managers.

At home, Mercier and council members attend numerous meetings of civic and government organizations. Occasionally, they also report business luncheons with other public officials.

Including Mercier’s $400-a-month vehicle allowance for local driving and mileage for a few out-of-town trips, the city has paid him $5,322 so far this year for use of his car. Council members’ mileage – mostly at 55 cents a mile – brings the total to $11,202.

Munson figures council members spend more on city business than they recover.

“I would say, on average, I’m probably going to get about a $200 to $300 ‘pay raise’ from this when I’m all done,” he said. “So I don’t think we have anything to apologize for.”

That includes the council dinners.

Anyway, Munson said, based on incoming members’ statements about public spending, he thinks the council has had its last supper.

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