Over the objections of City Controller Rick Tuttle, a key City Council committee on Tuesday narrowly approved payment of controversial $2,800 round-trip charter jet flight to Sacramento taken by Department of Water and Power General Manager Norm Nichols.
Calling the expense “exorbitance that rises to the level of unlawful,” Tuttle said he will urge the full City Council later this month to ignore the committee recommendation and force Nichols to pay for the flight himself.
“The council should rule it to be unlawful and the city should not pay for that travel and Mr. Nichols should,” Tuttle said.
Nichols said his schedule was too tight on April 24 to take regularly scheduled commercial airlines for a 45-minute meeting in Sacramento with California Department of Energy officials. Although the Sacramento meeting was arranged weeks in advance and the charter flight booked 12 days ahead of time, Nichols told the committee, “we attempted to adjust staff and calendar” but could not free up enough time to take available commercial flights.
Although the committee approved payment of the charge on a 2-1 vote, the council members clearly did not approve of Nichols’ actions.
City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who chairs the Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, “This kind of expense and conduct is not acceptable.” She said she would not consider paying for similar expenses in the future. But, Flores said, she recommended payment of the bill because the DWP’s expense policy was not clear cut.
“I don’t feel the flight was justifiable,” Flores said, “but it may not have occurred to you that it was not acceptable. . . . I believe that you didn’t and your staff didn’t give enough importance to the cost.”
Tuttle, who as city controller oversees all city expenditures, said he believes that city expense policy is explicit.
Tuttle cited a 1980 report by the city attorney that found that among the few expenses that would be unacceptable on their face would be renting “presidential suites” and “charter plane flights.”
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who voted against paying for Nichols’ chartered flight, said: “I agree with Tuttle. There is a policy and it is clear. They should have been able to adjust their schedules.”
Tuttle and Nichols have differed on expense account charges before. In the past, Tuttle has refused to pay for high-cost luncheons for DWP staff, including one event at a private club. Flores suggested that Nichols “begin treating the city money as if it was your own,” saying that might stop such expensive practices.