Councilmembers punch own tickets to fundraisers with public funds
City Council approves policy to spend public funds on tickets to fundraisers; increase amount of available funds for each council member to attend more events
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Attending events is one of the duties of elected officials everywhere. Groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings, award ceremonies, school visits and fundraisers are part of their weekly, if not daily, calendar. But when it comes to paying for their ticket, and even their significant other’s ticket, for many of those events, who should decide whether or not officials can use public funds to attend in their official capacity?
The Visalia City Council says they should individually decide what events they support financially and that the public should pay the ticket price for them. That was the decision at the Aug. 19 meeting when councilmembers approved new rules regarding what types of events councilmembers can accept donated tickets and how much taxpayer money they can access to purchase tickets.
In his report to the Council, City attorney Alex Peltzer said current policy allows councilmembers to be reimbursed or to use their discretionary fund for civic events but not if it is a ticket for a fundraiser. Those tickets must be purchased out of their own pocket or risk being labeled as political gifts and in violation of state law.
Bob Link said he was asked to attend a variety of events in his role as mayor, many of which are not in his district. He and other councilmembers said the expense of attending those tickets has become burdensome as ticket prices at local fundraisers and the number of fundraisers per year continues to rise. Councilmembers do receive a stipend of more than $900 per month, which can be waived, and $2,000 per year in discretionary funds, which can’t currently be used to purchase tickets to fundraisers.
Link and Councilmember Phil Cox argued that allowing councilmembers to use their discretionary funds on fundraisers would solve the problem, and that councilmembers could support more local charities instead of unused discretionary funds being absorbed into the General Fund.
“You would be putting us in a position to attend more events and spend more of our discretionary funds,” Link said.
In order to accept donated tickets and avoid paying out of pocket for every fundraiser, Peltzer said the Fair Political Practices Act requires the City Council to adopt a ticket policy that allows the city manager to distribute donated tickets to councilmembers selected by the city manager. This would prevent councilmembers from being accused of accepting gifts, which has the potential to lead to bribes or political favors. Peltzer further suggested the ticket policy allow the city to accept tickets as the result of a paid sponsorship, prohibit councilmembers from transferring or selling the tickets and require reporting the tickets on the councilmembers Form 802 reported annually to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
In addition to a donated ticket policy, Peltzer recommended that amending councilmember discretionary funds to allow for the purchase of fundraising tickets and increasing the fund to match the need to attend more community fundraisers, which is only allowed under the law once a city has a designated ticket policy. The changes would require broadening the definition of civic events to include: nonprofit organizations that provide economic or social services to city residents; honoring city employees, such as the Knights of Columbus Officer and Firefighter of the Year awards; promoting charitable, non-profit or public facilities available to all residents.
Councilmember Phil Cox said the current policy also excludes religious fundraisers from the list of qualifying civil events. He asked about Hands in the Community, a faith-based group that raises money and in-kind services to help with home repairs for low income residents, and whether or not they would be excluded from the policy because they provide services to anyone regardless of their religion.
“That’s different from a fundraiser such as St. Paul’s Church. If the purpose is more civic services it would not be considered religious,” Peltzer said.
Councilmember Brian Poochigian asked about attending a fundraiser for the Visalia team that won the Cal Ripken World Series. Peltzer said any fundraiser benefiting a single team, individual, or club would be in violation of the policy. Other ticketed events not allowed under the rules include entertainment events, such as concerts, and gambling events.
Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen motioned to revise the City Official Expenditure Policy, approve a ticket and pass distribution policy and to increase the discretionary fund to $4,000. When the motion was not seconded, Nelsen amended his motion to just revise and approve the two policies. That motion passed 4-1 which Collins voting no.
“When I brought up taking $10,000 from the Citizens Advisory Committee and putting it into the discretionary fund you would have thought I said to kill your first-born child,” Nelsen said. “We are still going to use it for good works.”
Collins suggested the opposite with a policy where the councilmembers turn over all of their discretionary funding to the Citizens Advisory Committee and let them determine which events councilmembers will attend in their official capacity for the city. In the case of fund-raisers, Collins sided with the current policy excluding councilmembers from using discretionary funds to support specific nonprofits and charitable groups.
“I’ve often thought that gives us as councilmembers somewhat of an unfair advantage for those running against us,” Collins said. “When I go to a fundraiser I should pay out of pocket.”
Nelsen then made a separate motion to increase discretionary funds by $2,000 per councilmember. Cox seconded the motion and it narrowly passed 3-2 with Collins and Poochigian voting no. Poochigian said he was in favor of broadening the scope of the types of events councilmembers can attend with their discretionary funds because he sees fundraisers as an opportunity to meet with constituents in person where they are rather than forcing them to come to rigid office hours but did not support raising the discretionary fund.
The expenditure policy revisions and the new ticket policy took effect immediately. The discretionary fund will be increased to $4,000 per year per councilmember in next year’s budget.