Tom Butt ticked off the similarities between Richmond and Regla, Cuba—which have been sister cities since 1999: Both cities’ economies are boosted by large oil refineries, the councilman said. Richmond has waterfront views of San Francisco; Regla sits across a bay from central Havana. Both cities wrestle with political and economic change.
Butt and his wife returned from an 11-day trip to Cuba last week —Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and two city staffers joined them as part of the city’s delegation. While Butt covered his own travel costs, the trip cost the city about $13,000. Less than a month earlier, the city spent more than $36,000 sending officials to Zhoushan, China—another of Richmond’s three sister cities.
While councilmembers say the trips foster economic growth and spur innovative thinking, some resident are wary of footing the bill to send city leaders overseas while Richmond grapples with a sizable budget shortfall.
“These trips are viewed as perks,” said Doug Johnson, a Richmond resident who owns the local ceramic supply store, Clay People. “Unless there are clear objectives for the trip and a report on the success or lack of success of the trip, they shouldn’t be billing it to taxpayers.”
While in Cuba, Butt and McLaughlin participated in a wide range of activities: They discussed ways to promote democratic participation with Regla’s civic leaders; visited the memorial site of the leftist icon Che Guevara; and got a glimpse of Cuba’s schools and hospitals.
What caught Butt’s attention most was the country’s commitment to historic preservation—something the Councilmember passionately advocates for in Richmond.
“They have a historic preservation project that has probably surpassed anywhere else in the world,” Butt said. “Any lessons we can learn from anyone else in the world that’s doing this successfully can help us continue our [historic preservation] program.”
The other members of the delegation focused on their own interests—including Cuba’s race relations— in hopes of finding programs and policies that could be emulated in Richmond, Butt said.
“There’s a diversity of activities that these sister city relationships support,” said Megha Swami, the communications director for Sister City International, a non-profit that strives to strengthen connections between sister cities. “[They] provide long-lasting grassroots level relationships that can be leveraged.”
But some residents don’t think the city should be spending scarce resources for politicians to travel abroad unless the trip pays tangible dividends. “To see how another government works is too vague of an objective,” Johnson said.
Controversy dogged city officials’ October expedition to China and Japan. Invoices from the trip show that Councilmembers Corky Booze and Nat Bates exceeded their $5,000 travel budget by $760. Counting the receipts filed by Port Director Jim Matzorkis and two other city staffers, the trip cost taxpayers $36,120.
Booze also rang up additional expenses, including a $560 laundry bill and an $860 shipping fee for gift baskets sent to China prior to the trip, according to receipts filed with the city.
“In the corporate world things are budgeted very tightly down to how many bottles of water you put in a cooler,” Johnson said. “I guess there needs to be more accountability in general for money spent in local city government.”
Booze previously told Richmond Confidential that the trip will pay off in the long run. “Before 2006 we had no business intention with them,” Booze said, adding that there are preliminary plans to work together on several projects.
Councilmember Butt said he is currently preparing a public report that will detail his trip to Cuba.