Paris, Heidelberg, Venice.
This summer’s vacation? No. That’s a list of three European cities that two of our City Council members will be jetting off to if the Council on Monday agrees to increase an already lengthy list of destinations for which the city pays for their travel and lodging and meals. (I’d suggest that these particular beneficiaries – John D’Amico and Lindsey Horvath – abstain from voting on the matter).
Since 2014, the events on the City Council’s long travel list have included the International Art Exhibition (the Venice Biennale), where d’Amico is headed. There’s also South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., which bills itself as an “annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March.” And there are the multiple events staged by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, an organization whose mission is to get LGBTQ people elected to public office (however, the city doesn’t fund trips to the Democratic or Republican party national conventions.
In the past, the city has paid to send Councilmember John Duran to events of the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials, an organization that he chairs and whose upcoming conference is scheduled for Miami in June. This year Duran won’t be traveling on the city’s dime since the Council stripped him of that privilege in reaction to allegations of his inappropriate sexual behavior.
Of course there are more relevant events worth the Council members’ time and the city’s dollars such as the National League of Cities annual conference and various events staged by the California Contract Cities Association and the League of California Cities, all of which are on the city’s list and which are attended by various Council members.
The long list of events and conferences approved for City Council member travel also includes some that are more appropriate for city staffers, who are focused daily on issues like use of public spaces, urban land use, and clean power. One of those is the Alliance for Local Government’s 2020 conference in Phoenix. The ALG explains that it is an organization “that enables local government staff from all career stages and divisions to network, discuss emerging practices, and conduct Alliance business.” That is “staff” not “elected officials.”
The good news is that the organizers of the International Conference on Climate Action in Heidelberg, Germany, are paying for D’Amico’s travel and hotel. It likely will attract a crowd similar to that of the Global Climate Action Summit, a United Nations event approved for Council travel that is scheduled for September in New York City. The city should be proud that D’Amico is being invited to attend, although we’re betting that, as impressive as its green policies are, WeHo has a small impact on global climate change (perhaps we should do more to curb the use of those leaf blowers and get more bicycles on the road.) Horvath’s trip to Paris also is an honor, given that she’s one of only 25 people invited to participate in the Open Source City Forum. John Leonard, manager of the city’s Community & Legislative Affairs Division, estimates that Horvath’s trip will cost the city $1,000. Leonard says there’s no estimate yet of the cost of D’Amico’s trip to Venice, which still must be booked.
So how do the residents of West Hollywood and our City Council members benefit from this sort of travel? The trip to Paris to participate in a global conference certainly elevates the profile of Councilmember Horvath, who has grander political aspirations, although it’s unclear what it does for West Hollywood. Both Horvath and West Hollywood have benefitted from her multiple trips to Sacramento to attend meetings of the League of California Cities, to which she is a Council-appointed delegate. Councilmember Duran’s position as chair of the National Latino Elected & Appointed Officials Organization certainly raised his political profile, but it’s not clear how his travel to its events has benefitted West Hollywood. (Only 12% of the city’s population identifies as Latinx. Eight percent is Russian-speaking. But no one on the Council attended the Human Rights Foundation’s PutinCon this year in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.)
One could argue that free travel to fun events is nice extra compensation for the Council members’ time. But council members already are well-paid for their part-time service to the nearly 37,000 residents of our small town. When combined with the city’s generous health and retirement benefits, a Council member’s $18,000 annual pay turns into about $30,000 to $40,000 a year (the amount depending largely on tenure, with the base nearly twice what Beverly Hills Council members make for a similar part-time job).
The amount the City of West Hollywood spends on such travel isn’t huge. In response to a request from WEHOville last year, City Hall revealed that West Hollywood spent $35,161 on travel for Council members during 13 months beginning April 1, 2017. That works out to a little less than $1 per constituent. (Horvath was the biggest spender. Her travel cost the city $17,201 in that 13-month period, which was 49% of the total spent on all five Council members. )
The big cost to West Hollywood comes from diverting some Council members from staying focused on local residents and local issues. There are those issues not involving voters that they don’t spend much time on (without some pressure from WEHOville and the few residents who show up at Council meetings). Like the preponderance of massage parlors staffed by female Asian workers who may not be free to come and go on their own. Or a decade of meth abuse by gay men, the cause of between four and six of the nine drug-related deaths in West Hollywood last year, according to the L.A. County Coroner’s Office (some were the result of multiple drugs). The city also still hasn’t figured out whether or not to build bridge housing for the homeless.
And of course there are issues voters do care about, like traffic, parking, and development (about which our NIMBY/YIMBY city has quite conflicting views.)
So we’d suggest that our Council members whose political ambitions extend beyond West Hollywood spend more time “thinking local.” Spend that travel money sending Francisco Contreras, the city’s Innovation and Strategic Initiatives manager, to Paris and Heidelberg (and Austin, where SXSW this year devoted a small part of its music and film festival to technological innovation.) It’s Contreras and other city staffers who turn their research into local action.