TEMPERS FLARED and feelings were hurt at the Oct. 23 meeting of the Savannah City Council as members discussed an upcoming taxpayer-funded trip to China.
Mayor Otis Johnson, Mayor Pro Tem Edna Jackson, Alderman Van Johnson, City Manager Michael Brown and two city staffers are set to depart Nov. 1 on the 10-day trip. The official reason is for the council to cement relations with its “sister” port city, Jiujiang, and to develop trade with the Chinese.
Officials from Hinesville and Brunswick also are expected to make the trip, which was planned with the Coastal Georgia Regional Development Center.
However, other city council members say they weren’t informed about the trip and they think the mayor, Jackson and Johnson should all pay out-of-pocket expenses for sight-seeing.
Alderman Jeff Felser introduced a motion to require the three to reimburse the city $1,000 for sight-seeing expenses. However, Alderman Mary Osborne requested that the amount be lowered to $800. Eventually it was lowered to $600.
The motion was approved on a 5-4 vote, but it isn’t binding.
The city estimates the trip will cost $2,912 per person for the trip without the per diem expenses. With the per diem expenses added in, the total rises to $3,762.
Alderman Clifton Jones Jr. sided with the mayor, Jackson and Johnson in voting against the motion, saying it was time to move on and that he believed the three were going as part of the city’s business efforts, adding he didn’t believe other aldermen were properly notified about the trip.
The first six days of the trip will be spent in Jiangxi Province, where an official sister city ceremony and document signing will be held. The government of Jiujiang will pick up all costs for that portion of the trip.
The delegation will then travel to Beijing, where several sightseeing trips are planned over two days. Brown said those plans probably will be changed because the delegation will participate in another formal signing ceremony on one of the two days.
But some council members weren’t swayed. “Alderman Johnson had a very good question - how can we move forward?,” Felser said. “This was a failure in planning and timing. We heard arguments with regard to the fact that taxpayer dollars are being spent for several days of sightseeing. Many of us on the city council believe that was excessive. Let the elected officials set an example.”
Before the meeting, the mayor presented a six-page document he had written, Trip to China: Setting the Record Straight. In the document, Johnson notes that a delegation from Jiujiang came to Savannah last April, visiting the port and the Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.
He said he received an official invitation to bring a delegation from Savannah to Jiujiang that was dated Sept. 10.
Representatives from the Savannah College of Art and Design and Ambling Companies, the developers of the Savannah River Landing project, also are going on the trip, and will pay the full cost of their travel.
“I did not personally select any of the Council members who are a part of the delegation,” Johnson wrote. “The delegation is rounded out with staff members City Manager Michael Brown; Jennifer Payne, city logistics coordinator; and Margarita Bourke, city media coordinator. The other two cities are carrying about five persons each.”
The trip was planned to coincide with a Sister Cities conference in Beijing, Johnson wrote. “The government of Jiujiang agreed to pay all the expenses of the delegation in Jiujiang City,” he said.
“Council member Tony Thomas is the generator and architect of the controversy,” Johnson wrote, adding that Thomas began e-mailing council members to question who had made the selection of council members who are going on the trip.
“He wrote: ‘It would appear that after five years of working together and harping on communications, that the City Council as a whole would be better informed, open and accountable, than we were. You’ve made this one of your priorities, but why such a failure from the top on this?’”
Johnson conceded that he is held responsible for everything that happens in the city. “President Harry S. Truman’s most famous saying is, ‘The buck stops here.’ In hindsight, I should have demanded more oversight of the planning process and kept the Council more informed,” Johnson wrote.
The mayor wrote that Thomas had been denied a trip he wanted to make, and in turn questioned the inclusion of Van Johnson on the China trip.
Funding for the trip will come from the city’s general fund, Johnson wrote. “The press totally missed the point.Now thoroughly confused and misled about the trip, citizens are writing letters to the editor and calling in to talk shows condemning this important trip.”
The mayor told the council that he and the others are being singled out from the city’s paid employees. “And we are paid employees,” he said.
Felser responded that council members are not considered employees. “We are elected officials, separate and apart from paid employees,” he said. “We have taken an oath of office to uphold the trust of the people of Savannah.”
“We’re going to travel 14,000 miles,” the mayor said. “Now you’re saying that three members of the delegation should not be afforded the same privilege everyone else has, simply because we are elected officials.”
“I ran for office because I had great respect for the City of Savannah, and its professional staff,” Alderman Larry Stuber said. “I came to the council with certain values. Those values are being tested today.”
Stuber noted that he ran a business for 30 years. “Over those years, I was very careful how I spent their money,” he said. “I can’t change that when I come up here. I think they should go to these port sites. I’ve been to China, and they’re a great potential business partner for this city. But I feel compelled to say we are leaders of the community. We need to lead by example.”
Jackson, who appeared near tears at times, said the trip is being conducted for the good of the city. ““We’re talking about two days,” Jackson said. “The Chinese people want to make sure we see things in the area, the cultural sites. I feel now that with all this coming out, we’re being penalized because some people may feel that what is happening here is wrong,” she said. “We’re going to spend long hours traveling from one province to another. There will be wear and tear on our bodies.”
Alderman Johnson said the real issue for the flap is that he is going and not any of the other aldermen. “I don’t think anyone thinks the mayor shouldn’t go, the mayor pro tem should go,” he said, adding that he asked to be included on the trip. “It’s me.”
Felser pointed out that Jackson has already been on a taxpayer-supported trip. Stuber added that none of the discussion was personal to him.
“I understand every point of view and that’s fine,” he said. “But I told my constituents we would end this today.”
“It’s not the dollar amount,” Alderman Mary Osborne said. “It’s just to show good faith with our constituents that we are good stewards of their dollars.” cs