Residents scruitnize Councilmembers’ foreign trips

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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.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Lisa Lamagna

    Thank you RC for staying on top of these trips, expenses and progress (eg. after 7 years they are considering maybe working together…).

  2. I’m disappointed that even with all of the correct information that’s been disseminated–even at a City Council meeting several weeks back, the RC still uses the erroneous information fed to the world by a rival member of the Council. The City has clarified that the “$560” laundry bill was in the Chinese currency and not in American dollars. The cost was closer to $85.

    Part of the protocols associated with Sister Cities are the exchange of gifts. Sadly, it costs money to transport those items. If the amount quoted here is correct, the cost of shipping ay exceed the actual cost of the gifts.

    The delegation that went to China included the Port Director, two members of the City Council and a Deputy Police Chief. Part of the reasons for this trip included cementing relationships between business leaders that could bring more business to Richmond’s port. It also included an exchange of ideas so we might learn from a community that has mastered the use of anti-crime surveillance cameras so maybe Richmond can find better ways to reduce crime.

    The delegation that the City sent to Cuba included the Mayor and two of her aides. Councilmember Butt went on his own dime. Richmond has no business relations with Regla or any other city, community or business in Cuba so most of what was gleaned from this trip was a cultural exchange.

    While these trips may be labeled as perks of the office, a report back to the community is always in order. A report of the China trip was on the Council’s agenda in the middle of December before they took off for their holiday break but the discussion of the City’s eminent domain project took a lot more time than the Mayor expected when she drew up the agenda and the China report—along with about 15 other time sensitive agenda items—had to be put off until sometime in 2014 when the Council could make the time for them.

    I think we’d all be disingenuous to expect that when we send people to conferences or to represent us in other communities, that they’re going to restrict themselves to their hotel rooms and the conference rooms where their meetings are held. Dining out should be allowed. Site seeing should be allowed (on their dime). Laundering the clothes they will wear while representing Richmond should be allowed. And even gifts for the people we’re trying to impress and schmooze is also a part of the process.

    Some members of this community—and on the City Council—want to make these two trips a political issue. They want to use these as wedge issues to split the community. That’s why we’re hearing and reading so much about the China trip—which included a lot of business—and virtually nothing about the Cuba trip—which included zero business. This may also be why we’re not hearing anything about why Richmond sent two City staffers to Cuba. Were they representing us or did the Mayor require that many staffers to do her bidding while there?

    What should concern us all, though, is why the RC reporters and even the reporters from the Bay Area News Group and the SF Chronicle accept “news” that is fed to them by people with an agenda and seem to do so little to check it out and verify it. This while thing with the laundry bill could easily have been nipped in the bud had some enterprising reporter bothered to call the City’s Finance Department and check to see if what they had been told was correct.

    Wasn’t it just recently a world wide news story when a producer for 60 Minutes used unverified information when feeding information to the on-air reporter about the embassy attack in Benghazi? And didn’t Dan Rather (and others) end their careers when the yellow-cake WMD story aired about 10 years ago—all because due diligence was not properly done?

    Considering that the RC is an online newspaper that works through the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, it begs the question about exactly what these cub reporters are being taught and whether their news stories can be trusted as news or should be looked at as a blog.

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