State - INACTIVE

Modesto Councilman Garrad Marsh: Publicize council expenses

He wants the expense claims disclosed in quarterly reports posted in City Council agendas — the same process Modesto follows for publishing employee travel receipts.

Marsh's proposal follows a recent story in The Bee on the expense claims of former Councilwoman Janice Keating, whose expenses averaged $5,059 a year from 2007 to 2009.

"I think there has been abuse over the past couple of years," Marsh said. "(Keating's) expenses were more than the other five council members combined."

Keating told The Bee the claims reflected the work she put into her elected position, some of which included extra assignments from Mayor Jim Ridenour to meet with the public and represent the city at regional conferences.

Her cell phone charges are different from her former colleagues. Three of them had city-issued Blackberry phones, and that keeps costs in check.

'Completely different now'

"Nobody's going to have this problem where somebody's going to be continually be bombarded on their personal phone," she said. "Everybody who walks through the door today already receives this technology from the city. The situation is completely different now."

Marsh takes issue with Keating's mileage claims for driving to City Council meetings, a five-mile round trip. He also questions the reimbursements for a fax machine and DSL computer service at her home, and the reasons for some of her out-of-town trips.

In 2007, among the seven council members, only Keating and Ridenour filed expense claims with the city. The others dipped into their own pockets for mileage, use of personal phones or other work they took on while representing the city.

Keating is one of six candidates on Tuesday's ballot vying for the Republican nomination in the 25th Assembly District race. One of her opponents is Modesto City Councilwoman Kristin Olsen, whom Marsh has endorsed.

"As far as I'm concerned, it is a political thing and (Marsh) is trying to make hay of it," said Ridenour, who supports Keating in the Assembly race.

Ridenour said he will put Marsh's proposal on a council meeting agenda. "I don't know how soon," the mayor said. "We have a lot going on."

During her council service from 2002 to 2009, Keating spent $18,189, with $15,178 coming after 2007. Keating has said she took on more duties lobbying for the city after 2007.

Ridenour has defended Keating, saying much of the work was done at his request because other council members didn't have time.

Keating was reimbursed for cell phone charges of $100 to $459 a month. She submitted mileage claims for attending conferences throughout the Central Valley and for in-town meetings.

According to the municipal code, council members may be reimbursed for expenses incurred when performing official duties. It might be plane tickets, lodging, rental cars, mileage, telephone charges and other expenses.

Council members submit the claims to the city clerk, who is supposed to sign the claims if they are reimbursable under the city code. The clerk is one of four Modesto employees who work directly for council members.

Expenses difficult to find

Marsh said the public is not aware of the expenses unless they are published in the newspaper or people can find them in the city's 1,000-page audit reports. He said one way to make the information readily available is to list the expenses in quarterly reports posted in council meeting agendas.

Ray Newman, a former member of the commission that recommends salaries for council members, is for shedding more light on council members' expenses.

"People need to know what their elected representatives are doing," he said. "It is actually the taxpayers' money they are spending, so it would be advantageous for us to see where that money is going."

Councilman Brad Hawn said he had no opinion about Marsh's proposal because he does not seek reimbursement for his expenses. He said he doesn't think the council needs to review the expense claims.

"It seems like it can be handled with the guidelines," Hawn said. "It's fine to make more information available to the public, but I don't know if this is someone trying to make too much of this."

Marsh said the information would help to curb abuses and show if the public benefits from council member travel. He also wants department manager expenses disclosed in the quarterly reports.

"We need to be more diligent in what we allow in the way of travel," Marsh said. "Especially when we are cutting expenses by laying off police officers" and other employees.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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