Prairie Village city staff are pulling together more records following requests from resident Jori Nelson, who presented the council Monday with the an assessment of city council travel expenditures from documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act Request.
The documents reveal over the past ten years city council members and the mayor have charged meals to exclusive restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and The Capital Grille, and stayed at pricey hotels, like the Mandarin Oriental and Omni. (Fox 4 ran a story on the issue last night).
Council members also charged $6,000 over the course of ten years on airport transportation services.
Prairie Village Mayor Ron Shaffer, who is two weeks away from a battle at the ballot box with City Councilman Michael Kelly, issued the following statement regarding Nelson’s accusations:
“As always, we take the comments we receive from our neighbors in the ‘Public Participation’ portion of our City Council meetings with great interest and seriousness,” Shaffer said. “We like to hear what our citizens have on their mind, and wish to share with us, at any time, and in any climate. I have directed staff to review Ms. Nelson’s comments, and particularly, the numbers she presented. As well, staff will compile ‘Training and Conferences’ records for each trip and each council member for the past four years, and we will respond according to open records guidelines.”
City staff are expected to release the results of that report today.
Reached for comment Tuesday, Nelson said her goal was to bring more accountability to city hall.
“The attitude that some of these council people have is one of entitlement,” she said. “It’s got to end.”
Nelson said her assessment shows council members Ruth Hopkins and Diana Ewy Sharp were the top spenders over the ten year period for which she’s obtained documents, with Mayor Ron Shaffer coming in third.
Both Ewy Sharp and Hopkins released statements yesterday regarding the issue. Many of the costs incurred by both women came during periods when they were serving in board positions that required extra travel. Many of Hopkins’ expenses, for example, came during a year when she served on the National League of Cities Board:
“When I decided to run for the NLC Board, I asked for and received official full support of all of the city council members, the mayor, staff, and the board of the League of Kansas Municipalities. I explained to them at the time that extra meetings would be required. I not only received that support but also felt the pride of that Council at my involvement at this level.
“Every penny that I have spent on these travels was well within the established travel budget, and all of my travels were approved per city policy.”
(See Hopkins’ full statement after the jump).
Though the council approves a budget for Conferences and Training each year, current policy doesn’t place a limit on specific expenses incurred by council members, or what kinds of expenses they are allowed to charge while traveling, said City Administrator Quinn Bennion.
“The standard of a reasonable charge is something that at this point is up to the discretion of the council person,” Bennion said.
Nelson said her motivations aren’t political, though she said she is supporting Kelly in the mayor’s race because she thinks the city needs a change in leadership. Kelly’s campaign calendar shows Nelson hosted a campaign event at her home March 6.
See Hopkins’ full statement after the jump.
Statement from Ruth Hopkins
I have had the honor and privilege of serving the residents of Ward 2 in Prairie Village in a volunteer position as their Councilperson since April of 1992. Prairie Village is a wonderful suburban city that I am proud to have called home since 1978. It is a well known and somewhat humorous fact that we are paid $1.00 per year with an already canceled check
I ran for City Council because I had become concerned with problems that I observed in my neighborhood from a lack of strict code enforcement. Early in my first term of service, I was able to affect several changes that I believe have made a significant difference in the level of code enforcement success in our City. We were able to tighten up both the codes themselves and the enforcement of them. As a result, the level of complaints has fallen significantly.
In the course of the almost twenty years that I have held this position, I have become involved with organizations outside of Prairie Village that affect our day to day existence. I currently serve as Chair of the Johnson County Solid Waste Committee. As chair, I have been very involved with the re-write of the Solid Waste Code that the County works under. We have made significant advances in recycling, yard waste, and glass disposal. I have also been involved with the Mid America Regional Council’s Solid Waste Committee in an ex-officio capacity. Decisions made at a regional level will impact how we live and I believe it is best to have representation there to look out for our best interests.
On the behalf of the citizens of Prairie Village I have also become involved on a State and National level. I served for several years on the National League of Cities Community and Economic Development Steering Committee and served several years in leadership of that same committee. Elected officials come together from all around the country to establish policy to protect our cities’ best interests at the federal level. I believe that it has been very positive for Prairie Village to have a seat at the table with other decision makers. My involvement on this level requires that I take personal vacation days from my full time job and time away from my family.
One year, I was asked to testify on behalf of this committee before the Department of Commerce to try and save the CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) program that was being threatened with abolishment. Prairie Village uses CDBG funds through Johnson County for projects which include making sidewalks, crosswalks and playgrounds compatible with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The local YMCA has also requested funds through the City for their afterschool programs. We were successful at convincing the Department to restore funding to its full amount.
The National League of Cities works for all cities. They provide a database of best practices, offer help on legal and administrative issues, offer training for all the aspects of leadership and decision making that a councilmember may need. We as a City have taken advantage of a prescription drug program that they offer, began a Christmas tree recycling event that they proposed, and are soon to offer a water/wastewater insurance program through one of their vendors. All residents of Prairie Village can take advantage of these programs, and many already have.
The education that we receive when we attend a conference makes us better Councilmembers. We hear from speakers ranging on topics from budget preparation to sustainability and youth involvement. Generally speaking, when meetings are held outside of the two national meetings, the host city offers significant discounts on hotel prices and the host city also provides the vast majority of meals at no cost to the participants.
I have also been elected from within that organization to serve on the National League of Cities Board of Directors and also on its prominent Advisory Council. These boards have direct influence on policy established on a national level that ultimately affects the lives of all of us who live in Prairie Village. When I decided to run for the NLC Board, I asked for and received official full support of all of the City Councilmembers, the mayor, staff, and the Board of the League of Kansas Municipalities. I explained to them at the time that extra meetings would be required. I not only received that support but also felt the pride of that Council at my involvement at this level.
Every penny that I have spent on these travels was well within the established travel budget, and all of my travels were approved per city policy.
Membership and involvement on this level is a good thing for our City. We need to have a voice on local, county, regional, state and federal levels if we are to maintain the excellence that we have achieved. We cannot exist as an island; we are part of a global world.
I also believe that it is important to have personal contact with our representatives in Washington DC. It was not a coincidence that Kevin Yoder visited with the Council last Monday night. He was honored that we had visited him when we were in Washington recently. What happens at the national level does affect us here in Prairie Village.
I recently had the distinct honor of receiving the annual Making Democracy Work Award from the Johnson County League of Women Voters. I see this as validation of my almost twenty years of service. I continue to love the work that I do and am proud of my accomplishments.