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Mayor Poe hopes he won’t hear any more about his taxpayer-funded trip to Honolulu

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / JUNE 22, 2019

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe is attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting next week in Honolulu. Due to the location of the meeting, this trip costs more than the typical professional development meeting, and there has been a great deal of local interest in the trip.

WCJB asked the mayors of Gainesville and Ocala some questions about the meeting. Poe said his airline ticket was around $650 and that he was flying out of Spokane, WA, which reduced the price. However, the Ocala mayor’s ticket was “somewhere between $650 and $720”—not much of a difference, if any.

The meeting takes place at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, with a room rate of $269/night plus 14.96% tax, for 5 nights (for a 4-day conference). On top of that, there is a $20/night hotel fee plus a mandatory $20/day internet fee (this fee and the hotel fee are displayed in separate places and may be the same). Ocala Mayor Guinn is paying $182/night to stay offsite. The conference registration fee for a member mayor is $950.

Hilton Hawaiian Resort

WCJB noted that the city will be paying $237.00 for 5 dinners and 1 breakfast for Mayor Poe at the conference, but Mayor Guinn says he will have no meal expenses because “all meals are paid for through money raised by the host city.” Mayor Guinn noted that Mayor Caldwell of Honolulu has raised $4.5 million through private businesses to host the mayors at the conference. WCJB did not ask Mayor Poe why he was not taking advantage of this money. 

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WCJB asked Mayor Poe, “Gainesville does not have a permanent City Manager or Auditor, GPD officers have no contract and there could be a rise in GRU rates, property taxes and fire assessment fees. If this a fiscally responsible time to be taking a trip?” Poe said that was a leading question, and he declined to answer.

When WCJB followed up by email to get the per diem and lodging costs, Mayor Poe wrote back, “My EA will be happy to get those for you. In the meantime, will you please forward me the links to every story you have done concerning professional travel for every elected official in Alachua County over the past 10 years.”

On top of the cost of the trip, it looks like Gainesville’s annual fee to be a member of the organization is $9,181

The U.S. Conference of Mayors represents about 1400 U.S. cities with populations of 30,000 and higher. Of that total, about 225 will be attending this meeting. 24 mayors from cities in Florida are attending. For this year’s meeting, ALL attending mayors are invited to “either moderate (primarily officers and appointed chairs) or make a 2-3 minute presentation (all other mayors) in a plenary session, standing committee meeting, council meeting, best practice forum, or roundtable session.”

Mayor Poe will be giving a short presentation on “Entrepreneurship Training as a Strong Workforce Development Strategy” to the “Workforce Development Council Annual Meeting” in a best practice forum on June 29. We have requested a copy of the presentation. 

Several citizens protested the mayor’s costly travel at the June 20 City Commission meeting. Debbie Martinez said, “Mr. Mayor, the city is in the middle of a financial crisis. Please consider canceling your taxpayer-funded trip to Hawaii. The poor can no longer afford to pay for your catered meals and travel junkets.”

Wilbur Holloway showed pictures of the resort where Poe will be staying. “And we get to pay for it – awesome… We’re in the middle of the budget season. We have a $4m deficit that we’re trying to make up, and you’re going to go to Hawaii on our dime? Really?… East Gainesville, this is what your government’s doing. They don’t care about you. They take you for granted… This is so absolutely tone deaf.”

After citizen comment, Poe responded. His comments are long, but we thought you should have the chance to read all of it: “One comment was made about a professional conference that I am attending. I’ve found this all quite interesting. I have never before heard of any concern or criticism over any elected official engaging in professional development throughout our community, whether it’s the other eight municipalities or the county commission. I have been, as previously mayors before me, a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which is the oldest, it is the largest and most influential professional organization that mayors across the country of cities over 30,000 people are associated with. It was founded during the Great Depression and is probably, outside the two political parties, the most influential organization on shaping federal policy and executive branch policy for urban areas in the country. It is the most effective non-partisan organization at doing so. 

“I am a member of the International Affairs Committee with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I am a member of the Metro Economies Committee, and I am a part of the Task Force Council on Metro Economies in the New American City. I have been asked to present at this conference, representing the City of Gainesville in efforts that we have made here locally towards workforce development. I am proud of the low unemployment rate that we have; I am proud of the work that we’ve done with both governmental and non-governmental organizations, to give people opportunities, especially in the areas of entrepreneurship, that allow them to better their lives, and there are many, many cities across the country that are equally interested in the work that we’re doing here, and I would hope that our community would be proud that we’re being asked to represent those interests at this conference. 

“The U.S. Conference of Mayors has four main goals: the first is to promote effective national city and metro area policy at the federal and state level, the second is to strengthen federal/city relationships, the third is to ensure that federal policy meets our cities’ needs, the fourth is provide tools for leadership and management, to be more effective leaders, and the fifth is a venue to share ideas and to collaborate to learn from one another. This is not the first conference I have participated in; I hope it will not be the last. It is an unbelievably effective group, who draws the most powerful and influential people, from governors to the president to senators to members of Congress, and allows us to speak in one unified voice on the priorities that are important to our nation’s cities. 

“I can’t help but to think that if this was in Minneapolis or Denver, people wouldn’t be wearing funny-colored shirts today. I take it. I got elected, and therefore I have – not a literal, mind you – but a figurative target on me. I’ll take ‘em. I’ll take those swings. I’ll absorb the blows. I have a city to lead; we are doing great work here, and I’m proud to go out and talk about it. I would love if every conference that every organization had was in Orlando or Tampa; it’d be great; it’d be much easier to get to. The fact of the matter is they like to move these things around to give different people and different parts of the country opportunities to host them. And so I didn’t choose the location, but I did accept the invite to participate, and as in the past, I expect the city and specifically the body with which I serve to benefit greatly, just as conferences and professional development activities that all of our commissioners have engaged in have greatly enhanced their ability to lead, their ability to push forward positive policy, and their ability to help improve our community. So I hope that’s the end of that.”

The Gainesville Sun estimated that the trip would cost about $3700. Poe said in the WCJB article that he is “still well under his approved travel budget after this trip.” We looked into the travel budgets over the past few years. The money appears to be in the “Travel & Training” budget item under the Clerk of Commission’s Operating Expenses. That budget has been set at $2500 since 2013. It looks like it was amended to $2000 from a previous $500 in 2012. Except for 2013, that budget has been exceeded every year (the amount is typically between $3k and $5k). Given that Gail Johnson also went to the GARE conference in Albuquerque, it is difficult to see how the commission could be under budget this year. We have reached out for more information about the travel budget.

Mayor Poe is correct that the local community rarely gets upset about professional development travel. However, Gainesville is in the midst of an antagonistic budget process, in which the commission currently has a deficit of about $4m that they’re shoring up with increases in utility rates, property taxes, and fire assessment fees. At Thursday night’s meeting, Poe decided against accepting ANY of the possible $1.5m in cuts that the commission had requested from the Interim City Manager (we will have a detailed article on this next week). Poe has blamed the rising tensions on citizens who show up at meetings to ask questions about the various issues before the commission. This has created an atmosphere in which there is so little good will toward the mayor and the commission that the citizens are scrutinizing every expense. The commission’s catered meals and travel to desirable locations are just a drop in the overall budget, but citizens who will have to tighten their belts are increasingly unwilling to give nice perks to elected officials who are completely uninterested in fiscal accountability.

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