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Mayor Alvin Brown's travel scrutinized in City Council audit

Brown officials say they began addressing travel issues more than two years ago

Posted: July 1, 2014 - 1:53pm  |  Updated: July 1, 2014 - 9:01pm
Mayor Alvin Brown will make his proposals Tuesday to the Police and Fire Pension Fund for pension reform.  Dede.Smith@jacksonville.com
Dede.Smith@jacksonville.com
Mayor Alvin Brown will make his proposals Tuesday to the Police and Fire Pension Fund for pension reform.

Throughout much of his first year in office, Mayor Alvin Brown and city employees received improper donations from outside agencies to pay for travel, inaccurately filled out travel forms and routinely rescheduled or cancelled trips costing taxpayers more money, according to a Jacksonville City Council Auditor’s report.

Brown’s office agreed with many of the findings in the audit and said his administration began taking steps more than two years ago to correct problems with an internal review.

“That review produced a number of improvements,” Chris Hand, the mayor’s chief of staff wrote to Council Auditor Kirk Sherman in a response letter.

“Through this effort, we have enhanced the review of travel forms, created checklists to ensure proper memorialization and documentation for the mayor’s travel, reassigned travel responsibilities to new staff and conducted travel trainings with city employees.”

Times-Union stories in 2012 scrutinized the frequency and way Brown’s travel was paid, which must comply with a bevy of state and local regulations.

Brown’s office says the trips served important city priorities, like economic development, and he wanted the private sector to pick up that tab when possible to save taxpayer dollars.

The audit covered July 2011 through October 2012, a time during which Brown’s office operated on an opinion from General Counsel Cindy Laquidara, who said travel expenses paid for by others were gifts to the city, not to Brown.

She later asked for an opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics, which disagreed and said such payments were gifts to Brown, prompting the city to reimburse about $8,700 for expenses related to 14 trips.

Gifts must be reported to the state every three months.

“We reimbursed third parties that previously paid for travel, filed necessary disclosures with the state of Florida, and put in place new procedures to ensure that travel donations are handled correctly,” Hand said.

AUDIT FINDINGS

The audit examined 82 trips charged to the mayor’s office, totaling $78,056 — substantially higher than the roughly $20,000 in travel expenses during the 2010-11 fiscal year.

The report identified several issues:

■ Prohibited payments were received from outside agencies to pay for travel.

Among the trips the report singled out was one in which the JAXChamber paid for Brown to join Gov. Rick Scott on an economic mission to Brazil in October 2011. Under local and state law, the mayor should not have accepted a gift from the chamber, which lobbies the city on issues, the report says.

Brown said the chamber was reimbursed for the $2,351 trip, and his office later filed a disclosure with the state.

Hand also noted that the trip helped Jacksonville International Airport become home to Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer’s 40,000-square-foot assembly facility for the A-29 Super Tucano aircraft.

Since the Ethics Commission’s opinion, the city created a policy to allow outside entities to pay for travel to comply with the ruling. The city can accept third-party reimbursement for trips after the city incurs the expense. Brown’s office also consults with Carla Miller, executive director of the City Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight, as well as deputy general counsel Jason Gabriel to ensure instances when third parties offer to pay for travel expenses are handled appropriately.

Since adopting that policy, the city has been reimbursed for $7,417 in trips from third parties.

The city also created a travel fund into which third parties can make donations to help defray the cost of official travel for city officials. Since creating that fund last year, no donations have been made, Hand said.

■ Travel paid for by third parties was not disclosed as gifts in a timely manner.

This year the council passed legislation, signed by Brown, that requires gifts to be posted to the city’s registry within 90 days of receipt.

■ The most cost-efficient travel options were not always chosen.

For six trips, airfare was not bought at coach-fare rates, and there is no evidence coach seating was not available, according to the audit. Seat upgrades range from $17 to $80. The audit also found “that a particular brand of hotel is routinely selected even if more economical choices are available.”

Brown’s response said city staff who handled travel at the time “always booked for economy seating unless it was not available” and that the hotel stays the audit reviewed were chosen “due to their proximity to the location of trip meetings.”

■ Excessive flight cancellations resulted in additional costs for flights.

Of 19 cancelled flights, four opportunities to use the airfare credit for a future flight expired, totaling $2,359. In addition, the cost of a New York flight for four city employees was incurred twice, resulting in total costs of $4,789. The original trip, which would have cost $2,249, was cancelled. But city employees booked the rescheduled flight with a different airline and thus could not use the existing airfare credit. The new flight was $2,540.

Brown’s office says it now maintains an electronic and hard-copy file of cancelled flights and credits that can be used for future flights.

Nate Monroe: (904) 359-4289

LATEST REIMBURSEMENTS

The following is a list of third-party reimbursements for travel made after state Ethics Commission said such payments are gifts to the individual rather than the city. Now, the city’s policy requires the city to first incur the cost of travel before a third party can reimburse the cost.

Oct. 16, 2013: American Architectural Foundation, $1,621.32 for Mayor Alvin Brown to attend 57th annual City Design Conference in Charleston, S.C.

March 9, 2014: University of Central Florida, $275.79 for Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Cleve Ferguson to speak at Lou Frey Institute in Orlando.

Feb. 25, 2014: National League of Cities, $1,500 for Dave Roman, a senior policy advisor for Brown, and Taurean Sinclair, Jacksonville Journey Program coordinator, to attend Cities United Conference in New Orleans.

April 9, 2014: National League of Cities, $2,020.13 for Taurean Sinclair and Tony Hill, a key aide to Brown and a former state senator, to attend NLC Black Male Achievement Conference in Oakland, Calif.

April 9, 2014: National League of Cities, $1,010.06 for Dave Roman to attend NLC Black Male Achievement Conference in Oakland. The reimbursement is anticipated but has not yet been received by the city.

Nov. 12, 2013: National League of Cities $990 for Taurean Sinclair to attend NLC Black Male Achievement Conference in Seattle. The reimbursement is anticipated but has not yet been received by the city.

Comments (4)

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Bubba
763
Points
Bubba 07/02/14 - 07:19 am
0
0
Premium Member

And very soon will be the

And very soon will be the scrutinized CRA/DIA in the USA 22 square mile zone of our Downtown and a new total Authority with the ability to just pick the winners and losers and travel to the project with the biggest taxpayer bailout. Travel on our unauthorized purchase of Water Taxis after we kicked out the number one vendor. Then dine and drink at a Unified Plaza that was just rewarded a blanket permit for alcohol sales in the $2,000,000 PUBLIC Park and property as we tell the world to Visit Jacksonville. Tweak your travel plans because this is all positive.

Mockingjay
1665
Points
Mockingjay 07/02/14 - 06:30 am
0
0
Premium Member

The report was completed as

The report was completed as required by Charter law.

No conspiracy here.

After three years the community should expect no less than the paperwork to be done correctly,in a timely manner within the confines of the law.

It should be easily achievable unless...skirting the law is the real objective. After all the requirements are in the easy to read Charter that the mayors OVER paid personnel should be able to understand,so where lies the problem?

When deception is the objective its hard to get all the lying correct

Lie Detector
2935
Points
Lie Detector 07/01/14 - 09:41 pm
0
0

Seems like the city council

Seems like the city council and TU have a coordinated attack against Alvin. They must have another candidate they are supporting for the upcoming mayors race.

Noillusions
3219
Points
Noillusions 07/01/14 - 09:55 pm
0
0

Everyone knows it takes a

Everyone knows it takes a great deal of global searching to find just the right water taxi & that international scoreboard / kiddie pool search was the worst. Not to mention the completion of that sidewalk (riverwalk) and arrangements with Greyhound for the Bus Terminal at the mouth of the convention center is still not completed. Never mind jax's debt is rising daily & a BILLION+ $ Pension blackhole. Plus Moody is killing us on his Bond Rating schedule. Travel to London was supposedly free, but that entertainment bill is frightful. Finding solutions for those issues is not cheap.

Thank goodness all that expensive travel resulted in MAJOR INDUSTRY & CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS coming in...oh wait.
BUT everyone knows jax is right on the brink & has been for DECADES!!

Well, what can you say...

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