Most Augusta Commission members take advantage of a perk of the job: travel.
One or more members of the city’s governing body have traveled to at least 26 out-of-town conferences – from Athens, Ga., to Pittsburgh, Chicago and Seattle – over the past two years, with more planned as the year ends, according to accounting records and credit card statements obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.
During the period, commissioners registered 159 hotel nights, each costing $100 or more per night.
While the commission struggles to balance next year’s budget without raising taxes and fees, forcing departmental cuts or raiding savings, each out-of-town conference costs taxpayers in multiple ways. In addition to registration fees, hotel charges and membership dues, there are “per diem” travel advances issued to each commissioner for daily expenses, whether meals are included or not, airfare for long-distance travel and individual mileage payments for a group that rarely shares a ride.
The consolidated government’s status as both city and county provides an opportunity for “double-dipping.”. The group attends both state and national events for cities, including events held by Georgia Municipal Association and National League of Cities, and events for counties, including those held by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and National Association of Counties.
The apparent leader in travel is two-term District 5 Commissioner Bill Lockett, a retired federal worker who has attended at least 14 events outside Augusta since January 2012, including April’s American Planning Association conference in Chicago, the July National Association of Counties annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas, and last month’s National League of Cities convention in Seattle.
Lockett, known to speak about his affinity for furthering his education, received $5,218 for expenses during the period for 28 ½ days of travel at a daily rate that ranged from $39 to $56, plus 40.5 cents for each of 3,188 vehicle miles. He did not return a call seeking comment.
Those payments are in addition to hotel charges, airfare, conference registrations and membership dues found on records that rarely specify a commissioner by name.
Three nights at the Georgia Center in Athens for the annual Current Ad Valorem Edicts and Trends conference for Lockett, ex-officio member of Richmond County Board of Assessors, cost $297 each year. Five nights at the Omni Fort Worth hotel cost the city an average of $229 each night. Commissioner Mary Davis’ fall stay at the boutique Hotel Indigo in Athens cost $268.
Lockett and commissioners Alvin Mason, Bill Fennoy, Corey Johnson and Marion Williams, who attended the National Association of Counties conference in Fort Worth, garnered some $430 each in per diems that included $150 each for baggage and taxi fees. Airfare out of Augusta to Dallas cost $261.50 per commissioner.
Among the 10 sitting commissioners, only three – Joe Jackson, Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle – limited out-of-town travel during lean city budget years to four or fewer trips in two years, including four commissioners who took office this year. Although all were paid individually for mileage and meals, term-limited Jackson attended only three annual ACCG or GMA conferences in Savannah, receiving $824.30 for 834 miles of driving and nine days’ expenses.
Reached Friday, Jackson said he carpooled with Guilfoyle on occasion to events but had forgotten that commission clerk Lena Bonner calculates travel advances based on miles driven.
“In defense of the newly elected officials, there’s certain basics that you have to have,” while others may overindulge, Jackson said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to all these trainings.”
Georgia law requires that commissioners attend a training session for newly elected officials during their first year of office, although they can opt to become “certified” and maintain their certification by completing a certain number of GMA or ACCG course hours.
Guilfoyle attended four events, two ACCG conferences and a GMA event in Savannah as well as the January 2012 GMA “Mayor’s Day” celebration at Hilton Atlanta. He joined Mayor Deke Copenhaver, Johnson, Lockett, Smith and a city administrator, commission clerk and city attorney, according to the records.
Smith and Johnson, two of four commissioners to also use a city gas card, each gassed up during the dates of the Mayor’s Day conference, in addition to receiving payment for 300 miles of travel to Atlanta and per diem expenses.