Politics, ethics of supervisors’ trips

Union Democrat staff /

Supervisorial travel, a political hot potato that periodically bounces into public view, came at us with some serious topspin last week.

At issue was Board Chairman Teri Murrison's request that Tuolumne County pay for a November trip to Denver, where she will attend and speak before the American Stewards of Liberty's Call of America Conference.

The Texas-based Stewards will later reimburse the county for the Colorado trip's $500 to $1,000 cost, Murrison said.

But the road to the board's eventual 4-1 approval of her request was not without potholes.

"This is ridiculous," Supervisor Liz Bass told her colleague. "You're using Tuolumne County as a bank."

The specter of Golfgate, probably Tuolumne County's most notorious travel scandal, was called forth, as was the image of white supremacist David Duke getting elected to the local board and asking the county to pay his way to a Ku Klux Klan rally.

Although some were outlandish, last Tuesday's comments point out flaws in Tuolumne County's present travel policy.

First let's deal with Golfgate, a mid-1990s brouhaha triggered when two supervisors took a developer-funded golf junket to North Carolina on the QT. Both were eventually fined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for accepting gifts beyond state limits.

Compared with Golfgate, Murrison's Denver trip is small potatoes. She's been honest and up front all along, and is not trying to hide anything.

In fact, said County Counsel Gregory Oliver last week, the two Golfgate supervisors could have avoided FPPC trouble by going through the board like Murrison.

Which begs questions: Didn't those board members deserve the trouble they found themselves in? And how much more palatable would board approval have made their developer-paid golf junkets?

But before offering last week's advice to the board, said Oliver, his office called the FPPC for advice and was referred to relevant sections of law.

As it turns out, however, politicians who accept travel pay from outside groups can't escape state scrutiny by simply having the county cover costs up front and then accept reimbursement. FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter, whose agency is now looking into Tuolunme County's practices, said traveling board members are still getting free trips, meals and lodging - which could amount to a gift.

The travel at issue involves a political organization that has an agenda. Some critics, for instance, brand Stewards of Liberty as a right-wing, anti-environmental organization.

A key question is whether Murrison's attendance at the Stewards' conference warrants even short-term, fully reimbursed county payment. What exactly is in it for us?

The same could be asked of Supervisor Paolo Maffei's county-paid, then-reimbursed attendance at a 2008 Pacific Rim Resource, Conservation and Development Conference in Oregon.

Maffei last week argued that such county payment of up-front money is OK under even the most extreme of circumstances. "I know it sounds absurd," he said. "But I'd vote to pay David Duke's way to a Klan rally if we were to be reimbursed."

That way, Maffei continued, Duke's travel request would be public, out-front and before the board. "If voters didn't like it, they could throw him out of office," he said.

On the downside, Supervisor Duke would travel to the Klan rally on Tuolumne County's dime, and a few weeks later our treasurer would find himself at a bank window cashing a check from the KKK.

What's wrong with this picture?

Unless travel directly serves county interests - like lobbying trips to Washington or Sacramento to appeal for funds or regular meetings of state or regional supervisors' groups - even short-term bankrolling is out of line. Particularly when the aim is to avoid FPPC scrutiny.

As far as openness goes, local ordinance (reimbursement or not) requires board permission before any member travels to an event at which he or she will represent the county. And the FPPC's open Web site lists resolution of all investigations and any enforcement actions taken.

In summary, it's time to let supervisors planning political trips take their chances with the FPPC or, as Bass suggested last week, "pay the whole thing yourself."

The Union Democrat
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