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Published On: 2/14/13

Council Tables Elected Officials’ Travel Policy Changes

By: Staff Writer via Maryland Coast Dispatch

SALISBURY – A discussion over elected officials’ travel expenses hit a nerve this week as a few changes were sent back for further discussion.

On Monday evening, a resolution came before the Salisbury City Council amending the Council Regulations and Rules of Order with travel policy. The issue was discussed at work sessions on Jan. 7 and Feb. 4, 2013.

According to the resolution, the Charter of the City of Salisbury provides that the City Council shall determine its own rules and order of business, and the council have amended those rules and regulations on many occasions in the past.

The City of Salisbury Employee Handbook Chapter 2 states, “City Council members travel must be approved by the Council prior to the travel. Throughout this policy, references to City employee would also apply to elected officials.”

The resolution furthers the strategic and equitable use of the City Council’s travel and training budget contributes to productive meetings and quality debate on legislation and policy for the benefit of the general public and the taxpayers who fund the budget.

The council believes it to be in the interest of its members, the general public and the taxpayers to include policy information related to its use of travel and training funds in the City Council Regulations and Rules of Order.

The amendment would add a new section, titled Use of Council Travel and Training Budget, and will include council members shall comply with the employee handbook policies on travel, and prior to incurring any travel expenses a council member shall obtain approval of the travel from the council. Travel expenses incurred without the prior approval of council shall not be reimbursed or, if mistakenly reimbursed, shall be refunded by the council member.

Also, no member of council shall use more than one-fifth of the appropriated total of the council's travel and training budget without approval of the council. If the amount used by any council member exceeds this amount, the excess shall not be reimbursed or, if mistakenly reimbursed, shall be refunded by the council member. No council member shall be required to use all or part of his/her portion of the travel and training budget.

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell asked for the resolution to be removed from the legislative agenda and sent back to a work session for further discussion. She found multiple problems, such as misquoted information, and the omission of a line for the mayor’s signature.

According to Mitchell, the quote from the employee handbook, “Council members travel must be approved by the council prior to the travel...” falls under the heading, Overnight Traveling.

“You are significantly changing the requirements from what’s in the employee handbook under Overnight Traveling to every … dinner, will have to come before council for approval,” she said.

Council President Terry Cohen responded, interestingly enough the entire section of “Overnight Traveling” is not all about overnight travel.

“In fact, it even makes the statement that same day travel should be approved before the travel being taken, and overnight travel should be approved prior to the travel being taken, so the one thing that is off in the employee handbook is simply there is a little bit of a misnomer in terms of the name of that section,” she explained.

Although she realizes the resolution has to do mainly with the Council Rules of Order, Mitchell said it does include the employee handbook, which falls under the mayor’s purview.

“Therefore, the mayor should be signing off on this resolution as well … I don’t even know if he has been consulted about this,” she said.

Councilwoman Shanie Shields felt there wasn’t enough discussion on the resolution, especially because it involves the budget.

“When we have certain concerns with the budget, we need to come back and really talk about it before we bring it before the public … changing something like this that is to me in midstream where compromises can be made during the budget time over certain concerns we have over travel,” she said.

Shields added that travel plans can be determined prior to the budget being set during the council’s goal setting session in October.

“We need to find out the feel of what we want to do as a council before we make changes,” she said.

Cohen was concerned with the resolution being postponed because of the trouble she and the City Clerk have been having over allotment and fair share of travel expenses.

She added the mayor’s signature has never been included in the amendment of the council’s rules and regulations.

“This is strictly the council’s rules of order. They do not affect anybody except us,” she said. “It does not change anything in the employee handbook, it simply was referencing the employee handbook because the policy always has been that council travel should be approved by council prior to it being taken and that has not been happening.”

The council ended up voting unanimously to remove the resolution from the legislative agenda to hammer differences of opinions out in work session.

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