Trippin'

Just what are those Minneapolis City Council members doing when they travel on your dime? Not much.

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:

  • The most scandalous item we found belongs to Sandy Colvin Roy of the 12th Ward. The itemized bill from a trip she made to Boston for a National League of Cities Conference last December shows that Colvin Roy used the minibar in her room at Le Meridien. On the $10.92 bill, Colvin Roy disbelievingly wrote, "one can of beer?!" Apparently the lubricant was worth the stiff tab: She attached a certificate to her expense report indicating that she had successfully completed a training seminar called "Leading Change in a Changing World."

  • Perhaps the most meticulous council member is Ostrow, who writes intricately detailed memos requesting reimbursement for the approximately $2,500 a year he spends jetting to conferences in places like Los Angeles and Vancouver. He and the Third Ward's Joe Biernat, being northeast Minneapolis homies, are travel buddies, sharing rooms, taxicabs, and meals on at least three trips since 1998. "In order to travel in the most cost-effective manner, Council Member Biernat and I shared an executive suite," Ostrow wrote to a city clerk after the two roomed together at a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., in March 2000. He goes on to note that the room, which he charged to his American Express card, cost $689.99, and that half of that cost should be paid out of Biernat's council account. Ostrow also writes that he wants $40 back for covering a lunch with Biernat, "which was billed to my charge card as well."

  • When Biernat does venture on his own, he churns out his own prosaic memos in an effort to prove he can penny-pinch as well as his travel mentor. "There's a little competition between us as to who can be the most parsimonious," Biernat admits. And he wants the city clerk to know he's the mack daddy of thrift: "As you will see, I am a cost-conscious traveler," he opines in a memo seeking reimbursement for a November 2000 trip to the unbelievably dull-sounding Waterfront Center Workshop, where Minneapolis received an award for "excellence in planning." "I found a low Sun Country charter air rate, opted to stay at a Best Western ten blocks away, as opposed to a conference hotel which was a Mariott [sic], and I was able to secure a complimentary registration for the workshop." Biernat further justified his $630 tab by adding, "It was good that a policymaker from our city attend."

  • Biernat also went on at length to explain why he flew on two different airlines to attend a Waterfront Development Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, in November 1999. It was, he insisted, $500 cheaper that way. "Given my parsimonious history, I hope you understand the purchase of two tickets," he wrote in the memo that accompanied his expense report. "My objective was not only to attend a very educational conference, but to save travel dollars and return to my family as soon as the conference was over." (Biernat's council ward includes a stretch of Mississippi riverfront where redevelopment is a political hot potato.)

  • Imagine the cocktail-party conversation: Last November Biernat spent four days in Nashville at the International Association of Transportation Regulators meeting, where he attended "informative" meetings on "the emergence of 'black cabs.'" He forwarded the $1,090 bill to the city's Licensing Division.

  • Anyone who's ever had to dine at an airport can certainly understand how Doré Mead (11th Ward) shelled out $18 so that she and a city staffer could wolf down what a receipt called a "Pub Pastrami," a "Squatters Italin" [sic], an iced tea, and a Slice at the Salt Lake City airport in September 1998.

  • Joan Campbell (Second Ward) and former council member Brian Herron (Eighth Ward) are hotel movie buffs and are apparently quite aware that in-room movies won't be reimbursed. Campbell, who manages to find cheap shows, explains that she often gets bored on long trips. "Make sure to say that I pay for all of them," she notes, adding defensively, "At least I'm not sitting at the bar drinking." Likewise, Herron didn't ask for reimbursement for the $17.75 he spent on a flick at the Sheraton in Norfolk, Virginia, last summer.

    ("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.)

  • As boring and lonely as travel may be for some of the city's elected representatives, nothing was as tough as a trip to Miami taken by Barbara Johnson (Fourth Ward) in September 1998 to the National Recreation and Park Association's annual conference. The event's co-chairs promised great golfing, tennis, and shopping in Miami Beach. Unfortunately, as Johnson dejectedly writes in the memo accompanying her expense report, it was not to be: Hurricane George wrecked all the fun. "I had planned to visit several National Parks and had rented a car," she writes, noting that she had a nonrefundable ticket, and that the airport was even closed for 24 hours during the ordeal. Further, Johnson notes, there was no meal service in her hotel for three days. "I believe my action which resulted from the hurricane canceling the conference were [sic] reasonable and fiscally prudent," she concludes. Attached is a receipt from the travel agency that booked the trip, which advises: "Have a pleasant trip."

  • In March 1998 council president and Fifth Ward representative Jackie Cherryhomes left Minneapolis/St. Paul on a Tuesday morning, bound for New York's La Guardia Airport. Thursday at 11:00 a.m., she flew out of Newark bound for Orlando. She left Orlando at 8:45 that night and arrived in Las Vegas at 10:40 p.m. She made it back to Minneapolis on Friday at 8:00 p.m. So much for swanky political junkets.

  • Each council member has a different threshold for going the extra mile to save a tax dollar: Ostrow, Biernat, Campbell, Johnson, and Herron all attended the National League of Cities gathering in Los Angeles in December 1999. Herron spent $2,225.77 while staying with his wife at the Regal Biltmore Hotel (no movies this time). Johnson racked up a $2,182.27 bill at the same hotel but, insisting that she had been overcharged, got it knocked down by some $375. Campbell spent $1738.82 at the Wilshire Grand. Prudent Biernat stayed at the Marriott--not the site of the conference. At $1,321.61, his expenses would initially appear to make him the city's ranking tightwad. But a closer look at the records reveals that Ostrow, who stayed at the even farther-flung Otani Hotel for $1,375.88, somehow managed to get stuck with a $72 meal tab for Biernat.

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."

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