Councilor Tom Strand allowed a city-funded agency to pay for an out-of-state trip 

Picking up the tab

Whether it's having coffee with Sen. Cory Gardner, taking part in the Mayor's Cup golf tournament or flying to Washington, D.C., with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, City Council members do so at the expense of taxpayers.

With one exception.

When Councilor Tom Strand tagged along on an RBA regional leaders trip to Columbus, Ohio, in April, his $1,580 tab was later picked up by the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau — an agency Strand is poised to vote to fund as part of the city budget.

That's not much money in the grand scheme of things, and the purpose of the trip was to soak up ideas for what makes Columbus' economy and tourism experience adaptable for Colorado Springs. So the City Attorney's Office OKed the CVB's offer to pay Strand's bill.

But it doesn't look good, says Colorado Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro. "It does give the appearance of favoritism or quid pro quo, because [the CVB] is paying for travel and in turn the council is voting for grants [to CVB]," Toro says.

Strand disagrees, saying, "I don't think it's a bad appearance at all." His problem was that councilors are limited in how much they can spend every year, and without the CVB pitching in, he couldn't have gone on another RBA-led trip to Washington in September.

In 2015, Council budgeted nearly $80,000 for travel and local expenses but used only $12,800. So this year, only $36,000 was budgeted, or $4,000 per member, and councilors were limited to one out-of-state trip.

That rule and spending limit haven't been a problem for most. City records through Sept. 9 show Council has spent $9,533. Councilor Helen Collins has used nothing, and Strand has spent the most at $4,075, which includes $1,763 borrowed from the account of Council President Merv Bennett (who's spent only $365), to fund the D.C. trip to meet with lawmakers and federal officials. Council approved the fund diversion.

Strand knew he wanted to go to D.C., he says, but when the Columbus trip arose and no other Council members could attend, he agreed to go. While there, he expressed concern about his shortage of travel money to CVB president and CEO Doug Price, who offered to pay his Columbus expenses, Strand says.

He asked for and received clearance from the City Attorney's Office, which ruled "that it was authorized and appropriate for me to accept funds from the CVB for the trip."

On June 30, the CVB took the irregular step of reimbursing the city for Strand's expenses. Council Administrator Eileen Gonzalez confirms it's the only time in at least three years that an outside organization has funded Council travel.

While Strand is the Council's liaison member of the city's Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax Committee, which recommends allocations of LART money, including to the CVB, he doesn't vote, he notes.

But he's in a position to vote on the 2017 budget that will allot money to CVB, just as he did last year. It's worth noting the city struck a three-year deal with CVB in 2015 that automatically gives CVB two-thirds of the LART money, so there doesn't appear to be any discretion.

This year, CVB received $3,249,067, while next year the amount will be $3,678,667. It's by far the biggest LART recipient, with the next highest amount, $165,000, going to support the 2018 U.S. Senior Open golf tournament at The Broadmoor.

The city's ethics code bars those subject to the code from engaging "in any activity that may create, or does create, the appearance of impropriety."

Gonzalez says via email Strand's Ohio visit was "very much a working trip" because part of the trip related to "researching effective lodging tax programs."

Council has toyed with the idea of asking voters to increase the 2 percent LART tax, which is significantly lower than that of other cities.

Strand says the trips are worthwhile. In Columbus, for example, he talked with people about the city's bus system, efforts to attract and retain millennials, and a bike- and car-sharing program. "I don't know that you can ever get that stuff second-hand," he says.

Strand asked to tap Collins' funds for his D.C. trip, but she refused. And she has some strong feelings about the issue.

"I don't use taxpayers' money to travel," Collins says via email. "We very seldom get feedback from Council trips, and most of the information is available through social media. Council members will tell you it's to develop better relationships with other politicians. Have you seen any benefit from these trips?"

Nor does Collins partake of free lunches catered for Council members twice monthly before their 1 p.m. formal meetings at a cost of $8 to $10 each.

"Council members will tell you they only get $6,250 a year [stipend] and this is an extra benefit," she says, adding, "Council members know what their pay is when they run for office."

Strand did, indeed, invoke Council's measly pay in justifying his spending list, which includes 20 in-town meetings, more than any other councilor. Among those: $200 for the Fine Arts Center's Rio Season Opening Gala, $275 for the Mayor's Cup (Bennett and Councilor Don Knight also participate; see "City funds golf outing," July 20, 2016), and $125 for the Memorial Hospital Catwalk for Cancer. He also attended a Colorado Municipal League meeting in Vail, as did other councilors.

Strand notes that he doesn't collect mileage for his trips around the city or to Denver on city business. He calls out-of-state travel a "sacrifice" because as a career Air Force attorney, he traveled so much that "it's not something I enjoy anymore."

Asked if he'll recuse himself from the budget vote in light of the CVB payment, Strand says he hadn't thought about it but "now I certainly will. I think I ought to disclose it. Whether I should recuse myself is another thing."

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