The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

PLANES, TRAINS AND CARS


NEW TRAVEL POLICY FOR CHESTERFIELD COUNTY OFFICIALS


CAN OTHERS LEARN FROM THIS HARD LEARNED LESSON?


A QUESTION OF ACCOUNTABILITY


Earlier this week, Chesterfield County officials unveiled a new policy providing higher standards of accountability for County officials who travel in the course of conducting public business on the taxpayer’s dime.

Congratulations to Chesterfield County.

This new policy is the direct result of the embarrassing $18,000 charter jet trip taken this past December by current Chairman Dickie King and County Administrator Lane Ramsey in connection with circumstances that arguably had little if anything to do with Chesterfield County interests (essentially the personal/legal problems being experienced by then Chairman Edward B. Barber). This story, first revealed by Chesterfield County citizen Brenda Stewart following a routine Freedom of Information Request, got wide coverage and rightfully caused a fair amount of embarrassment to those officials who were responsible for what might be characterized as a lapse of judgment.

In the end, it appears that the responsible parties have made a fair effort to make amends and to undo the financial harm to County taxpayers that this lapse of judgment caused.

Going one step further Chesterfield County appears serious in their intent to avoid similar problems in the future with the development of this new policy that provides certain checks and balances and higher degrees of accountability for expenses incurred by County officials in the conduct of public business. Credit for this reform seems to go primarily to Supervisor Art Warren who earlier detailed some of the suggested reforms needed.

Most significantly, the new policy requires quarterly reports on the travel of members of the Board of Supervisors, the county administrator, the deputy county administrators and the assistant county administrator to be made available to the Supervisors.

The essence of the new policy seems to be that the highest officials of Chesterfield County, including the Supervisors themselves and the top administrators, are now expressly required to report and account for their travel expenses.

This seems quite appropriate. Frankly, the Iconoclast is surprised that such reporting may not have been previously a routine practice. If it wasn’t, it should have been.

But the real benefit of the new policy is not that the Supervisors are going to report to themselves where they and other top administrators have been traveling to on official business and how much it cost the taxpayers. The real benefit is that citizens and taxpayers now have a convenient routine document to inspect through Freedom of Information inquiries enabling them to hold top elected and administrative officials accountable for their actions.

There is nothing like the threat of public scrutiny to keep public officials honest.

Chesterfield’s recent misfortune and resultant reform is also a good case study for other local governments in Virginia to consider.

The conduct of local government business rightfully requires routine travel by public officials. Not infrequently that travel takes local government officials well beyond the boundaries of the jurisdiction. There are many good reasons for this travel and the taxpayers should not presume that public officials are merely out jet setting, joyriding and living the high life when traveling on the public dime. Travel is expensive whether it is by plane, train or car. Then there are hotels, meals and other related expenses. Public travel is necessary for any number of good and well justified reasons.

However, as we have seen, abuses can and do occur usually because no one is paying attention, sloppy management practices, or weak moral leadership. Occasionally, the abuses are so egregious that they explode in headline news with the result that public confidence is damaged. An abuse by even one public official casts a cloud of suspicion over all. Also, casual acquiescence to of such abuses by the high level public officials (AKA the bosses) contributes to wider abuses throughout the ranks… a case of leading by bad example. Little abuses unattended almost always lead to bigger abuses.

The best way to avoid problems of abuse and to maintain public confidence is to enforce a zero tolerance policy for travel expense abuse for public officials, regardless of position or rank.

With effective policy and management systems, every dime expended on public travel should be accounted for and justified as appropriate public business. Public officials should not be required to travel by mule-train and to camp out in tents while conducting public business. But by the same token, public officials should not be milking the taxpayers with opulent travel perks disguised as "official business."

So, local government officials of Virginia, if you haven’t recently looked at your travel expense policies and management systems, now is a good time to take a look at them. If necessary, fix those policies and systems before problems of abuse are front page news.

Learn from Chesterfield County’s example. Don’t become tomorrow’s headlines.

RELATED ARTICLES:

Apparently Chairman King wants citizens to butt out of County's business.

Chesterfield County Administrator in need of Frequent Flyer Miles.

3 Comments:

  • At 4/20/2006 6:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Nice plane!

     
  • At 4/24/2006 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Like you say, regular travel reporting is probably routine in most localities. But abuse arises when those reports go unexamined as a result of sloppy management.

     
  • At 5/10/2006 12:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Every locality in Virginia ought to be looking closely at this matter. As a small business owner who has been burnt a few times, I would suggest that local government would be dollars ahead if they started looking for travel expense abuse.

     

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