Months ago County Commissioner Joanna Bryan asked the Clerk of Courts for travel records pertaining to commissioners, staff and several annual conferences.
When the records were provided for public viewing during the last regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, at least two commissioners wondered about their accuracy.
Bryan made her request after presented with a board motion to approve travel by Commissioner Warren Yeager in advance, providing a blanket approval for travel to specific meetings.
At the time, before voting, Bryan asked the Clerk’s office to provide travel numbers for county attendance for the Florida Association of Counties annual meeting, the annual convention of the National Association of Counties and the Florida Small Counties Coalition.
She wanted those records for the previous two fiscal years.
What the Clerk’s office provided, budget and finance officer Sherry Herring said, was the travel of all county staff, commissioners’ in-county travel and travel to those three conferences as well as a breakdown by district.
However, Herring said the system she was trying to pull information from was only as good as the information that was put in the system and that left her efforts to answer Bryan’s questioned constrained.
The breakdown by district, she said, could be off due to the way the system is set up and how and who uses county credit cards to pay for the travel.
For example, travel for one commissioner might be paid by another commissioner or by staff and unless individual paper vouchers and receipts were pulled – meaning many more man-hours – some numbers were estimates.
She noted that during the time period involved, two newly-elected commissioners, Commissioners Ward McDaniel and Tan Smiley, might not have been issued their county credit cards and others may have paid for trips.
She also said she would receive vouchers with only the name of a hotel on it, but no indication the circumstances of the stay.
She had more than one travel voucher that “does not state what it is for.”
Herring agreed with commissioners who suggested the BOCC and Clerk’s office look at the way travel forms are coded and how information is entered into the Clerk’s system.
McDaniel disputed the accuracy of the numbers and noted that taxpayer dollars were involved.
“This is people’s money,” McDaniel said.
In an email to Bryan, Herring noted the restrictions she was operating under.
“Given our resources I have attached the best summary I am able to provide in this time frame,” Herring wrote on April 9, roughly two months after Bryan’s request.
Herring also noted that the out-of-county travel numbers were solely for the conferences requested.
“As we discussed, I have broken down the commissioner’s travel by the conferences you specifically requested,” Herring continued. “Doing so for other departments and/or additional conferences would take additional time.”
Herring said during the board meeting that while district numbers might skew depending on circumstances, “The overall totals are correct.”
Overall, commissioners spent $31,846.77 in 2011 and $260.67 more in 2012 to travel to the FAC, NACO and SCC meetings, as well as what is noted as “other” travel which involves only Yeager ($2,133 in 2011; $5,133 the next year) and former Commissioner Bill Williams ($4,116 in 2011; $8,471 in 2012).
Commissioner Carmen McLemore did not attend any conferences, but the four other commissioners attended the FAC and NACO conferences and the Clerk’s records indicate the county administrator and attorney also attended.
In addition, the five commissioners combined to spend $24,740 in 2011 and $23,413 in 2012 for in-county travel, with Williams and McLemore each claiming at least $6,000 in 2011 in-county travel alone.
In addition, staff travel, in-county or not, totaled $66,579 in 2011 - $26,670 is labeled “Other General Fund Travel” which is paid from the same fund from which commissioners are paid – and $75,937 in 2012.
In 2012, $33,556 of that travel again was labeled “Other General Fund Travel” and was paid from the same fund as commissioners.
That put the narrow travel totals provided by the Clerk, restricted to the three major conferences, in-county and staff travel, at $123,166 in 2011 and $131,458 in 2012.
“I think we need to look at how we can improve on keeping track of expenses,” Bryan said. “I think we need to make some improvements.”
The BOCC also got its first look at a proposed process for crafting the agenda, which would require commissioners to place items on the agenda by a deadline or seek approval of a super-majority (four votes) at the beginning of the meeting to amend the agenda to include any additional items requiring a vote.
In seeking that amendment, the commissioner must explain the purpose for inclusion in the agenda.
The process would be similar for staff to bring an item to the BOCC after deadline, but the request for an amendment must come from a commissioner.
Any request from the public that arrived after the deadline would follow the same procedure.
The document was drafted by county attorney Jeremy Novak.
The goal is the increase public awareness and transparency regarding the issues and topics to be discussed, the policy stated.
Bryan asked that commissioners review the policy and come back with suggested revisions at the next BOCC meeting.