CITY HALL — In their roles representing the residents of Santa Monica, some members of the City Council occasionally find themselves far from home, conducting what’s considered “official City Hall business” in places as distant as France, Denmark, Mexico and Norway.

Under the city’s charter, City Hall covers council members’ expenses when they travel to attend conferences or speak at events on behalf of Santa Monica, whether they travel abroad or within the U.S.

In recent years, the council has budgeted about $45,000 for members’ travel costs, setting aside $6,580 per person this fiscal year.

In a routine review of officials’ activities, the Daily Press requested records of council members’ travel expenses since the 2007-2008 budget year and found that while most members take trips for official business, the amounts they spend vary widely.

Records provided by City Hall covered the period from June 2007 through March 2010, and showed the biggest spenders during that time were Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor, who spent $16,413 on trips, and Councilman Richard Bloom, who spent $15,802.

Among those who have been on the council since 2007, Bobby Shriver spent the least, with $604 in expenses. Bob Holbrook spent $10,021, and Kevin McKeown spent $9,131, finance department records revealed.

While many City Hall-funded trips are for council members to attend conferences put on by organizations like the California League of Cities and Local Governments for Sustainability, members also have spent taxpayers’ money to go to events with less obvious connections to City Hall’s activities.

For Bloom, one of the more “unique” City Hall trips took place in May of 2008 when he went to speak to leaders of the Baja California town of Todos Santos, Mexico, “a natural paradise where desert meets the Sierra Laguna mountain range,” according to its Web site.

Business and elected leaders of the village, located 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, were interested in growing their tourism industry without becoming overrun with spring break revelers, Bloom said.

“They saw Santa Monica as an icon of how you can have a livable city that has a vibrant tourism industry at the same time,” he said.

Conversations with leaders from the town, which took place in a mix of broken Spanish and English, offered “an opportunity to share ideas and for them to learn from us and for me to see things from a different perspective,” Bloom said.

Travel, including the Baja trip, is an important aspect of representing Santa Monica, he said, and is “money well spent on behalf of the public.”

“I think it’s one of the more meaningful and important things that we do because it allows us to learn about what’s going on in other places and to trade information,” he said. “It really, I think, facilitates thinking outside the box.”

More commonly, council members take trips to attend conferences with leaders of other U.S. cities, going to places like San Antonio or Schaumburg, Ill.

O’Connor said many of her trips are to attend regional events where transportation issues are discussed or to learn about environmental issues relevant to Santa Monica. Her involvement on steering committees of groups like the National League of Cities, she said, have played a part in her appointment to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, a position she said benefits Santa Monicans.

One of the main points of travel for elected officials, she said, is to have a say in the decisions that other government bodies are making.

“We could live in isolation and pretend that other levels of government don’t affect us, but they do,” she said. “Their decisions affect us on a regular basis.”

Some trips, though, are simply to share what Santa Monica has accomplished and to bring back new ideas. On that front, since 2007, O’Connor has traveled to Australia and Denmark for environmental meetings on solar energy and climate change, respectively. (She paid for the Australia trip with frequent flier miles because she tacked on a vacation before the conference).

As citizen legislators rather than full-time politicians, O’Connor said it’s important to note that council members donate their time to travel, only getting reimbursed for plane tickets, meals and hotel stays. She said she often has to work on weekends to make up for the time she spends traveling for city business.

As long as officials are transparent about their activities, there’s nothing wrong with well-documented travel expenses, according to Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“I think that people need to get out of Santa Monica and see what’s happening in the rest of the world,” he said.

But it’s important, he added, that officials prove to residents that travel budgets are used in ways that benefit the city. Leaders should give verbal or written reports about out of town meetings they attend, especially for international trips, he said.

“I think if they did that, people would feel much better about foreign travel,” he said.

In Santa Monica, there’s no formal process for council members to report on trips they take, but most members said they generally share their experiences with City Hall staff and with their colleagues after attending conferences.

While most council members said responsible travel is an important part of staying informed about issues relevant to Santa Monica, Councilman Bobby Shriver said he doesn’t feel the need to take trips in order to be an effective representative.

“I’m not a big guy on going to conferences. For me they’re not as helpful as they may be for others,” he said.

As the council holds budget hearings in the coming weeks, he said discretionary budgets including council members’ travel allotments “should be strongly scrutinized.”

O’Connor said officials should “be as frugal as possible” in making travel decisions, but added: “We’ll have some funds for travel. I don’t think we should cut them, totally.”

Travel spending decreased<p>

In each of the past two fiscal years, the council has spent well below its allotted amount on travel, with $27,337 in total expenses during 2007-2008, compared with a budgeted amount of $44,058. In 2008-2009, the council spent $24,400 of the $45,157 it had budgeted, and by March of this fiscal year reported travel expenses were $8,826, far less than the $46,060 that was budgeted.

O’Connor and Bloom, though, each spent more than their allotted amount for the year once during the period for which records were reviewed.

O’Connor spent $9,851 during 2008-2009, and Bloom spent $10,580 during 2007-2008, City Hall records showed.

According to the ordinance governing council expenses, members are allowed to go over their budgets if they get a colleague to “authorize use of a portion of his or her allocation … if authorization is made in writing to the council office staff with a copy to the city manager.”

Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager, on Thursday could not verify that her office had received written requests for expense account transfers, and Sonia Ramos, the council’s secretary, could not be reached.

“We were aware of the requests, what I can’t tell you is was it in writing or verbal,” Vernez said.

Neither Bloom nor O’Connor was certain of whether the written authorizations were made.

“It’s been more informal than that, as far as I know,” O’Connor said of the process.

Both Bloom and O’Connor said they had received assurances that the council as a whole was under budget on travel before taking extra trips.

“Yes, other council members have in effect subsidized my participation, but hopefully I represented the city well” and the city benefitted from that, O’Connor said.

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