WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) – When two county commissioners, from the same town, go to the same city to attend the same meeting, how many vehicles do you think they should take? And how long do you think they should keep them if they’re owned by the county?
New Hanover County Commission Chairman Jonathan Barfield and Commissioner Brian Berger traveled to Washington, DC, last week to go to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference. It started Saturday, March 5 with a Technology Summit followed by meetings on Sunday the 6th, Monday the 7th and Tuesday the 8th.
County records we requested show that Chairman Barfield checked out a 2008 Chrysler Town and Country van (county owned) on Saturday, March 5th and returned it on the evening of Wednesday, March 9th.
Berger checked out a 2006 Ford Freestar van to go to the same conference, returned on Wednesday, March 9th to attend the CFPUA workshop at the county courthouse, but then didn’t return the van until this past Monday, March 14th – a full five days after getting back from Washington.
Here’s Berger’s emailed response:
In response to your inquiry, I was initially scheduled to travel to D.C. with Chairman Barfield and County Manager Bruce Shell departing Friday, March 4th for a weekend Technology Forum and various policy steering committees of the National Assoc. of Counties. Chairman Barfield rescheduled at the last minute to fill in at his church and preach that weekend and Bruce Shell also had a last minute change of plans given the situation arising with R3 and the scheduling of a Board “Closed Session” Meeting on Saturday, March 5th. Barfield traveled to D.C. Sunday or Monday for the 2011 NACo Legislative Conference.
With responsibilities related to work, family commitments, and different meeting schedules directly-related to public office, although this was only my third out of town trip as a County Commissioner, I suspect its not that uncommon for officials to make separate travel arrangements even though it would be more cost-effective to travel together…efforts are made to coordinate (I’ve noticed that much) but it is not always feasible.
During my most recent trip prior to Washington DC, to attend a new commissioner training and state-mandated ethics program in Raleigh, I was able to pick-up the county vehicle on the day of departure and return it immediately upon pulling into wilmington by being able to go directly to the Government Center. On March 9th, at the crack of dawn I drove the county van to a location in virginia and then took the subway back to washington DC for meetings on Capitol Hill. I did this as part of an effort to attend important meetings in washington on the 9th and make every effort to somehow make it back to wilmington in time for the CFPUA Rate Workshop the evening of the 9th. I raced back to wilmington to make the CFPUA hearing, going directly to downtown to the old courthouse (arriving about an hour late). At the end of a very long day, part of a very long week, I went directly home after the Rate Workshop. The following day I had several meetings at the Gov’t Center including the County Board Agenda Review Meeting for last night’s Commissioner’s Meeting. I spoke with staff about the vehicle and asked for an opportunity to clean it so I could return it the way I received it, impeccably clean. Arrangement was made to return the vehicle to fleet management by ensuring the keys were available first thing monday a.m. so it could be returned to service. I asked if dropping it off Saturday would make a difference and it would not have made a difference. The car was returned first thing monday morning before staff arrival.
I did not return the car friday, and it was not driven anywhere on Friday, because after being out of town nearly a week and tied up in meetings Thurs. I had to get some work done. For most of the weekend, the car sat idle in my driveway.
Although I could be reimbursed by the County, I have paid for most of the gas on the three trips out of town I have now taken. I have paid for most of my own meals out-of-pocket too. No fancy taxpayer-funded steak and lobster dinners. I make it a point to be cost-conscious and minimize expenses where I can, paying some costs with my own money, and in this case I just needed some extra time to get the car cleaned, take care of other responsibilities at home, etc…and planned to return it over the weekend but scheduling made monday morning the best time.
I confirmed with staff Monday (yesterday) that everything was okay and checked out fine with the car and its return!
If you have any further questions regarding this or any of the three out-of-town trips I have taken as a County Commissioner I’ll try my best to answer them. Some details might need to be confirmed with staff if you’re seeking to do a report on my travel for the County.
National Association of Counties: http://admin.naco.org/meetings/participate/LegislativeConference/Pages/2011LegislativeConferenceReport.aspx