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Independence mayor, city council postpones adopting new travel policy

City auditor calls for more oversight, transparency
Posted: 9:30 PM, Feb 19, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-25 12:28:28-05
Independence City Council

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Independence city council members moved to postpone proposed changes to the city's travel policy Tuesday.

In September, 41 Action News investigative reporter Jessica McMaster discovered city councilman Tom Van Camp spent thousands of dollars on trips he refused to explain.

After the story aired, councilmember Karen DeLuccie requested an audit of the city's travel policy and review of all council member travel where a leave of absence form was submitted.

The city auditor writes, "Recently, there has been increased scrutiny of travel by elected officials. This, in turn, has raised questions about the necessary level of oversight and accountability that should be applied to council member travel."

The city auditor listed several suggestions for how to improve the city's travel policy and specifically looked at ways to create more transparency and accountability when it comes to travel on behalf of the members of the city council.

Mayor Eileen Weir moved to postpone the vote.

Weir raised several concerns over the proposed changes, including the fact that urgent last minute travel wasn't addressed in the audit.

The city auditor suggested the city council, as a whole, approve all travel requests made by a city council member, something the mayor did not agree with.

Weir said she's often the one responsible for traveling to conferences and training sessions.

She said other members of the city council don't know if the conferences are valuable because they've never gone.

Council member John Perkins seconded the mayor's motion to postpone the vote on the proposed changes until changes are made to the recommendations.

Council members Van Camp, Curt Dougherty, Scott Roberson and Mike Huff voted in favor of postponing, while council member DeLuccie voted against postponing.

"I'm disappointed that we have implemented a travel policy yet, it's long overdue," DeLuccie said. "I will be calling the audit finance committee together as soon as possible to look at the suggested changes."

The audit found issues with "post travel accountability."

"If one council member is selected to attend training or some other type of informational program it should be expected that that information will be brought back to the other council members."

The report goes on to say, "This level of expectation encourages travelers to attend conference sessions, instead of using the trip as a free vacation."

At least two city council members, DeLuccie and Roberson, said they never received any information from councilman Van Camp when he returned from his travels.

They also couldn't say how the councilman's travels benefited the citizens of Independence.

In a three year period, Van Camp attended several power conferences funded by the city-owned utility, Independence Power and Light.

In other words, the trips were paid for by the rate payers of Independence.

Travel records obtained by the 41 Action News investigators showed Van Camp often stayed two or three days beyond the dates of the conferences on the city's dime.

Using funds from IPL for travel was also addressed in the audit.

"This practice, while sound for maintaining a balanced budget, undermines the public's perception of accountability and transparency that an approved budget provides."

The audit states that setting a "clear budget amount" for city council travel, provides public transparency and suggests the budget amounts must not be exceeded.

Pre-travel approval was also recommended.

The auditor writes, "Elected officials are ultimately accountable to the voters for their actions in office but citizens should not have to systematically review travel logs to feel confident that travel is in line with their expectation of reasonable travel."