Council Warned on Paying Spouses’ Expenses : Norwalk: City attorney says that reimbursement of the travel costs is illegal and could open the city to a suit.
The city’s practice of routinely paying expenses of spouses who accompany council members to conferences violates state law, the city attorney has warned.
City Atty. Steven L. Dorsey said the city could be exposed to a taxpayer lawsuit if it continues paying travel expenses of a spouse when requested by a council member.
The City Council last week postponed a decision on the practice until next month, when the city’s budget deliberations begin. The council will decide when a spouse’s presence benefits the city and, therefore, when a spouse’s expenses may be reimbursed, Mayor Luigi Vernola said.
“I don’t want to leave it (reimbursement practice) as it is,” Vernola said.
Dorsey said there are times when a spouse’s expenses can be charged to taxpayers. One example is a dinner where a spouse helps a council member lobby for the city.
“It isn’t appropriate to send spouses merely because they’re spouses,” Dorsey said. “There has to be some public benefit there.”
Council members will not be requested to reimburse the city for past trips, Vernola said.
The council members had different opinions on the issue last week.
Councilwoman Grace F. Napolitano, who requested the review by the city attorney, has opposed such reimbursements since her first campaign for a council seat in 1986. She said her husband pays for virtually all his meals and travel expenses when he accompanies her. The city has paid for the Napolitanos’ room, but most of the time the second person has added no additional cost, according to city records.
“I think it’s a waste of money” for the city to pay for spouses, Napolitano said.
Councilman Bob White is on the other side. He suggested a compromise: that his wife be allowed to attend one in-state conference and one out-of-state conference per year at city expense.
White argued that spouses serve a legitimate purpose. “They act as a delegate in the same light as a council person,” he said.
City officials said they do not know how much Norwalk has paid in spousal expenses in recent years. Some expenses, such as air fare, are easy to track. Others are more difficult. For example, the city does not require that receipts for meals be itemized.
White and former Councilman Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez received the highest reimbursements for spousal expenses during the last fiscal year, city records showed.
The city paid $655 during the year for White’s wife, Frances, to fly to conferences in Boston, Sacramento and Charleston, S.C. The city paid about $1,200 last year to fly Rodriguez’s wife, Jennie, to conferences in Leon and Hermosillo, Mexico, and to Boston, Washington, and Albuquerque.
In related matters, the City Council passed guidelines last week limiting the number of free tickets council members receive for city events.
Council members will each receive six complimentary tickets to the city’s annual Dodger Day and annual Independence Day Pageant under the new policy.
The council also voted to prohibit political signs in the city’s Halloween Parade.