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Junkets by Norwalk Council Double Travel Tab Since ’82

Times Staff Writer

In the peach, mauve and burgundy dining room of the posh Tapestry restaurant in Palm Springs, tuxedo-clad waiters stood at attention while guests dined on salad and lobster bisque.

For the main course that night, 60 guests had a choice of prime New York steak, whitefish or a combination plate of veal and lobster. Between bites, the diners sipped vintage wines.

“They had a marvelous time,” recalled maitre d’ John Taylor, who said that for dinner that night, the entire restaurant was reserved for officials from the City of Norwalk.

Five-Day Seminar Cost $32,596

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The diners included the five City Council members, at least 16 other city officials, their spouses, children and about six guests. The bill came to $5,633, not including a preceding $269 cocktail hour at an adjacent bar. The expenses were part of a five-day seminar in Palm Springs sponsored by the California Contract Cities Assn. that cost Norwalk taxpayers a total of $32,596, according to documents released by city officials. About $14,000 was spent on council members, with the remaining $18,600 charged against travel budgets of city administrators and appointed commissioners.

The May 29-June 2 Palm Springs trip is but one example of what has caused travel and meeting expenses of the Norwalk City Council to more than double in the last three years. Part of the increase comes from a new policy adopted in 1982 that allows spouses to accompany council members on official trips at city expense. In addition, council members are traveling and spending more on city business.

In interviews, council members said their active participation in organizations such as the contract cities association has helped give the city necessary legislative clout in Sacramento and Washington on issues vital to Norwalk.

“We’re just a highly active, highly visible council,” Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez said. At meetings such as the Palm Springs seminar, “We’re on the go from 5 in the morning to 8 or 10 at night. It’s work that we’re doing for the city. It’s not a fun situation and it’s not vacation time.”

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Rodriguez said that Jennie, his wife of 33 years, works as hard as he does on official trips. He credited council wives with promoting better relations with county and state officials.

“In the morning, knowing that she’s there to see to it that my clothes are ready and just having somebody there to talk to at night is a comfort,” Rodriguez said.

In July, Rodriguez and his wife traveled to Paris, Lucerne, Heidelberg and Amsterdam as part of a 15-day tour with the Norwalk All-City Youth Band. The city donated $10,000 of the more than $150,000 cost of the band’s trip. It cost the city an additional $2,700 to send the Rodriguezes along.

In the past fiscal year, council members and their spouses have traveled at taxpayer expense to conferences and meetings in Anchorage, Indianapolis, Boston, Washington, Sacramento and Guadalajara. In addition, the city has a longstanding policy of paying for spouses and children of all city officials who attend the annual contract cities seminar in Palm Springs, officials said.

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While the city spent $42,140 on council travel in the 1982-83 fiscal year, the five-member council spent $54,453 in 1983-84. In fiscal 1984-85, council travel cost $87,019, which was $37,019 over the $50,000 that the council budgeted for travel that year.

In addition to the council’s expenses, city administrators spent an additional $27,023 on travel and expenses in 1984-85.

The council’s 1984-85 travel expenses of $87,019 are more than 2 1/2 times higher than travel and meeting expenses for Bellflower, its nearest spending rival among similar-sized councils in the Southeast area. None of the other cities in the Southeast area pay for travel expenses of officials’ spouses.

Norwalk’s 1984-85 travel expenses are 22% higher than the $71,140 spent by the nine-member Long Beach City Council, and are 7% below the $93,758 spent by the 15-member Los Angeles City Council and six to 10 legislative aides, said officials in these cities. Los Angeles and Long Beach also do not pay for travel expenses of spouses, officials said.

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Mike Carey, an executive officer in the Los Angeles city clerk’s office, said that council members, who earn $50,845 a year, make few trips to Sacramento and Washington because the city employs full-time lobbyists in both cities.

Earn $8,040 Year

In Norwalk, council members earn $8,040 a year and often make trips to Sacramento and Washington to augment efforts by part-time lobbyists.

The travel expenses of Norwalk’s City Council have already become an issue in next April’s campaign, with Grace Musquiz Napolitano, a council candidate, releasing a statement in the last week that attacked the council’s “party animal attitude” and “fat-cat frivolous spending.” Three council members, Mayor Rodriguez, Lou Banas and Cecil Green, face reelection in April.

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In reply, Banas and Rodriguez said that Napolitano, a former member of the city’s Sister Cities Commission and her campaign manager, former Norwalk Public Information Officer Randell Economy , have apparently forgotten that they also took trips at city expense. Napolitano and Economy confirmed that they had taken numerous trips at city expense, but figures for those trips were not available from city officials.

Norwalk council members vigorously defend their travel and meeting expenses and the city policy of picking up the tab for spouses.

‘A Family City’

“I see a lot of councilmen out there (from other cities) traveling without their wives and I think it shows that Norwalk is a family city,” said Green. “Our wives are part of us. We’re able to transact business better with our wives there. And it keeps husbands and wives together.”

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“If I had to take my wife and pay for her it would be quite expensive,” Councilman Bob White said. “It really helps (to have the city pay for it). It’s always nice to have the wife along.”

Through the city’s participation in organizations such as the contract cities group, the city has lobbied for retention of federal revenue-sharing funds, which amount to more than $1 million annually to Norwalk, council members said. The city also has lobbied on behalf of a pending bill in the Legislature that would provide revenue to cities that do not have a local property tax. If the bill is enacted, the city would gain $1 million a year, council members said.

Banas added that many seminars attended by council members are held in less-than-glamorous locations such as Indianapolis, Sacramento and Washington, which Banas said are not vacation spots that he would choose. He added that at the Palm Springs conference, he attended as many seminars as he could and spent no more than one hour at the hotel pool.

The fifth council member, Peg Nelson who is recovering from a stroke suffered last September, could not be reached for comment.

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By comparison, the City of Cerritos sent 21 persons to the Palm Springs convention at a cost of $15,860 for registration, hotels, food and miscellaneous expenses, said city spokeswoman Michele Ogle.

In the 1984-85 fiscal year, the council member who spent the most on travel was Green, who was mayor until April, and spent $18,933. Next was his successor as mayor, Rodriguez, at $18,472, followed by White, at $13,456, Banas at $7,542, and Nelson at $6,698. Miscellaneous travel and meeting expenses charged to the entire council amounted to $21,717.

The mayor has the highest expenses because “usually the mayor picks up the tab,” Green said. Nelson had the lowest expenses because other council members “usually pick up the tab for her because she’s female,” Green said.

In the 1984-85 fiscal year, the council’s travel bills included:

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- $2,454 for stocking, running and maintaining a bar and hospitality suite at the Palm Springs conference at the Sheraton Plaza. The cost included $668 for bartenders who were on duty 11 to 13 hours a day at $11 an hour; $320 for drinks served by bartenders and $896 for additional Scotch, bourbon, vodka, whiskey, gin, tequila, rum, beer, cognac, liqueurs, soda, nuts, crackers and mints purchased by city officials. The city also paid $570 for room service to maintain the hospitality suite.

Rodriguez called the bar a “method of lobbying for those things that you need” from county and state officials in attendance at the conference.

Added Green: “That was a legitimate expense when you’re putting on a hospitality room. Ours probably was the most active hospitality room at the seminar. We’re known as a most hospitable city and we have many friends that stopped by and said hello.”

White said that the city for the first time this year paid bartenders to serve drinks rather than have city officials do it, as in previous years. He said he favored returning to the former policy.

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- $2,528 for 1,008 13-ounce blue beverage glasses that featured a 22-karat gold band around the top and the names of council members printed on the side. The glasses, handed out as mementos at the city’s hospitality suite at the Palm Springs conference, are valuable for public relations, Rodriguez said.

- $4,092 in April for catering a Norwalk Ramada Inn reception honoring Rodriguez’s election as mayor. The city also paid for $222 in flowers for wives of Rodriguez and Green, and boutonnieres for city officials.

- $3,499 in August, 1984, for plane trips, lodging, meals and operating a hospitality suite at the Fiesta Americana in Guadalajara as part of a U.S.-Mexico Sister Cities convention.

The bill included $1,076 for plane tickets for Rodriguez, Green and their spouses and $1,858 for the three-day hospitality suite hosted by Green that also included costs for room and board for the Greens. TRAVEL AND MEETING EXPENSES

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Figures from the 1984-85 fiscal year compare Norwalk City Council travel and meeting expenses with those from six nearby cities.

Council City Pop. Members Expenses Norwalk 89,113 5 $87,019 Bellflower 57,783 5 $32,178 Cerritos 55,822 5 $15,655 Downey 83,752 5 $10,133 Long Beach 386,047 9 $71,140 Los Angeles 3,096,721 15 $93,758 South Gate 78,569 5 $2,417

NORWALK’S TAB IN PALM SPRINGS

These are expenses released by the City of Norwalk for City Council members and other officials during a conference in Palm Springs May 29-June 2. The Norwalk council members and officials met with their counterparts from other cities to discuss joint municipal purchasing.

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Registration fees for seminars $5,400 Lodging for council and staff, including spouses, children, grandchildren $11,446 Memento glasses with 22-karat gold trim $2,528 Room service for hospitality suite $570 Bartending service $668 Beverage for bar service $320 Liquor and snacks for hospitality suite $896 Dinner May 31 at Tapestry restaurant $5,633 Pre-dinner cocktails May 31 at Harvey’s $269 Other $4,866 TOTAL $32,596


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