Dreamers and conspiracy theorists alike probably have the same vision of the high life of a Minneapolis City Council member: pocketing extortion payments over three-martini lunches; clinking Champagne flutes while rubber-stamping plans for another downtown parking ramp; writing off swanky political junkets to the Virgin Islands. But enthralling as the image of the big-city power broker is, in reality most of Minneapolis's 13 (oops, scratch that--12) ward leaders are actually pretty low-rent, humdrum, and, well, just plain cheap. There are, it seems, no real party people in our civic house.
Each council member can draw on an annual budget of $10,900 to cover expenses in 30 different categories, including parking, transportation, food and beverages, office supplies, and computer hardware. Public records suggest that our elected representatives spend most of the money on travel: When they leave town, council members are required to submit details to city financial officers for reimbursement on airfare, lodging, and "miscellaneous daily expenses," which can include up to $50 a day for meals. If the council members--who are paid $63,700 a year--can't justify an expense, it comes out of their pockets.
The paperwork accompanying the pols' requests for reimbursement is brain-numbing in its level of detail. "The clerk's office's philosophy is that a request for reimbursement [from a council member] should not be different from anyone else who works for the city," says the First Ward's Paul Ostrow. "You need to get receipts. They are meticulous about documentation."
A chat with Assistant City Clerk Steve Ristuben confirms that there isn't much room for fudging the details of even the smallest bill. "I review all reimbursement requests from the city," the 28-year veteran says. "I've seen everything. Nothing amuses me anymore. But the fact is, it's public money, and you have to watch how it's spent."
In recent weeks City Pages has reviewed the travel records of all city council members from 1998 through 2000. We found precious little abuse of the public's trust. We did, however, find evidence that for all of the wheeling and dealing we mere voters tend to assume goes on inside city hall, the real power is held tightly by city clerks:
("I don't reimburse for in-room movies," says Ristuben gruffly. "It's not part of city business and it doesn't look good to the voter." He concedes, however, that he may grudgingly reimburse a minibar tab as a meal expense.)
Why exactly does Ostrow always get stuck with Biernat's food tab? "That's a very good question," Ostrow ponders. "I'm gonna have to turn the tables on him." Biernat, for his part, pleads innocence: "Well, it's only been one meal, right?" No, it's been several. "Well," he says flatly, "that's interesting."