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City Council Junket Debate, Good For Taxpayers Or Waste Of Money?

March 15th, 2017 · 33 Comments · Analysis and Comment, City Budget, City Council, City Politics

city council junket

City Council members with U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal. From Tom McCarthy Facebook.

Waste of taxpayer dollars or prudent lobbying work on behalf of the city? The majority of the 20-member City Council are in Washington DC this week attending a conference junket hosted by the National League of Cities. They attended government symposiums, were greeted by Connecticut’s U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and even met Vice President Mike Pence, according to City Council President Tom McCarthy who is providing updates on his Facebook page about the trip.

One McCarthy post drew a rebuke from city resident Phil Smith, “Has anyone noticed that Bridgeport is in the midst of a fiscal crisis? Sending that many people is ridiculous.”

McCarthy, grand marshal for this Friday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade Downtown, writes on his Facebook page:

Busy day today as the Bridgeport City Council lobbied on behalf of the city. We met with Senator Blumenthal and Senator Murphy. Had great discussions on strategies to maintain the vital federal programs that put police and firemen on the streets, gives housing to our veterans and helps the poorest in our community. We then met our counterparts from New Haven, Litchfield, Seymour, etc., to work together to make our case stronger. PS We met the Vice President, too.

At National League of Cities telling the story of the positive impact of the programs facing cuts in the new administration’s budget. Investments in CDBG, COPS grants, SAFER grants and brownfield grants, help our cities and nation grow. But more importantly investments pay back in multiples of the original investment. These investments grow jobs and save us money in the long term.

Every City Council member may access a $9,000 annual stipend that can theoretically cover the costs of such trips. Council members argue the junkets provide needed knowledge and build relationships with federal government decision makers in the cause of representing their constituents.

Cynics assert council members attend way too many of these things in the cause of having a good time on the taxpayer dime. Former City Council member Tom White who also served as legislative liaison often questions the relevance.

Mayor Joe Ganim and selected staffers also attend these types of functions.

This is an election year for council members, all Democrats. Many of them could face a September primary.

The council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, in particular, will be busy in three weeks after Ganim submits his spending plan for the budget year that starts July 1.

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33 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew C Fardy

    We have been sending council members to this cluster fuck for years. What have we got in return? Dumber council people. Why did we have to send 15 people to this bullshit session. Go ahead, raise my taxes again.

    • Mojo

      *** The NLC pays for the junket activities and the travel and hotel bill (political discounts) comes out of the individual council member’s stipend. Though it’s not all political business and classes with meetings with some of the CT Fed. Reps. and Senators, there are good opportunities to meet and learn many people and ideas that might be used in Bpt. It all depends what each member gets out of it and is willing to try! I went one year and got info. at C. Shays’ office on how to apply for funds to make the Bpt. Downtown post office handicap accessible on Middle St. It took 1-1/2 yrs. to get the funds finally, but with the help of C. Shays’ office and our city council liaison (Tom White), we got it done! So it could be a helpful, fun political trip sometimes. ***

  • Maria Pereira

    Someone please explain what Lydia Martinez is doing there. She is not a member of the City Council. She is the City Clerk responsible for the record keeping of the City Council.

    Every City Council Member MUST be challenged.

    • Mojo

      *** Well you’re right. L. Martinez really doesn’t need to go unless she decides to pay for the trip herself since she does not get a stipend. However there are many classes and political lectures that can be worthwhile to different political positions and individuals. Again, it’s up to the person what they get and do with the info. given once back home! Some council members go and some don’t, that’s their choice but if you’ve never gone and experienced the DC trip, then merely criticizing the trip just on hearsay or personal opinion is just that (personal opinion). ***

      • Lisa Parziale

        Ralphie, when Fleeta was City Clerk she had a small line-item in her budget that was intended for conferences. She would always stay within that budget amount while choosing the trips she felt would benefit her position as City Clerk as well as an understanding of what the council members were learning. I worked very closely with Fleeta when I was Council President, it provided cohesiveness between the Council and Clerk’s office.

      • Hector A. Diaz

        I believe the classes and workshops are intended for all elected offices. An astute politician uses these opportunities to form bonds with politicians in other states that may have information on funding sources for programs, sometimes one program funded that was otherwise not even created here is worth the trip in itself. I encourage our elected officials to attend if they feel the return is greater than the cost.

  • Bob Walsh

    What a total waste of money!
    When I was on the council I attended two of these conferences. Of course I went to several workshops and training sessions. And that was two in the 18 years I was on the council.
    At one of these, several of the council members there were treated to a dinner by an insurance company that was looking to do business with the city! Can you believe it?
    At other conferences many council members were MIA; Missing In Action.
    And to the point that they were lobbying Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy? If they need to lobby two Democratic Senators to impress upon them the need to continue funding block grants for police and fire, they should be spending their time working to replace these two losers rather than to lobby them! Of course I am sure they will have a different point of view on this topic.
    Otherwise we should be looking to replace the entire 20 of them and put people there who will re-prioritize city spending rather than lobby United States Senators on silly matters. Or, better yet, set up a meeting with the Senators in Bridgeport, not Washington, to address these and other issues.
    And as far as meeting this Mike Pence, that and a buck will get you a cup of coffee.

  • Bob Walsh

    Evette Brantley and John Olson? They will have to explain these actions to the voters in the 132nd!

  • Mojo

    *** Think of the NLC junket and the political functions available as a watering hole and remember, you can take a political horse to water but you can’t make them drink! ***

  • Bob Walsh

    The city of Bridgeport should do as the state of Connecticut. Each state rep and state senator is allowed to go to a set number of conferences. Or in the case of Bridgeport, so many can go in a two- or four-year period. Then if more wish to go the Council President selects who gets to go with parameters set so if the number is four then the president selects based on who has attended last and what they wish to attend. Also, no incumbent can go to the NLC that holds its annual meeting in November if that person chooses not to run or is not elected.
    Doesn’t take brain surgery. Just common sense. But then again we are talking about Tommy Mac.

  • Lisa Parziale

    I’m in absolute defense of these workshop/conferences; there is much to be gained if those attending are truly interested in sharing ideas and learning how other elected officials perform in their respective roles. It’s true however that some go for the social aspect and don’t attend scheduled forums. They know who they are, and so do I. As for the City Clerk, it’s always been policy the City Clerk attends also, she does, after all, interact and engage with the Council members on a daily basis. I strongly agree that those in attendance should be fully prepared to share their experiences with their constituents. The stipend they receive is best used to send a brief synopsis of what they gleaned, and how it can serve them in performing their responsibilities. It should be the responsibility of the President of the City Council to encourage this action.

    • John Marshall Lee

      The President of the City Council fails to set priorities that can be communicated to the public except when he needs a vote passing on a matter of import to the City.

      Practically speaking, the Council of and by itself has NO PRIORITIES, not even to cut their own budget when they do not and have no plans to spend the OTHER SERVICES line item in their budget that leaves at least $70-80,000 unspent every year.

      Tom McCarthy has shown his abilities in his role as President:
      ** To eliminate two positions of administrative support for the Council at the last budget moment in 2013, only one of which was filled at the time, and call it a cost-saving effort; but he knew the position was being switched to the City Clerk’s office where he exerted his own “management techniques” privately.
      ** Stipend authorization by Ordinance and that which is currently administered were not brought into accordance several years ago. Who let that happen? Take a bow, Tom!
      ** Trish Swain went on a junket or two, in her term of office, but wrote up her results for the benefit of taxpayers. Does Tom even make an effort in this regard? Does Tom like the status quo, too dearly?
      ** Remember that Tom McCarthy understands detail only too well. With Tom, it’s getting things done in the quiet (and dark). Remember how he introduced a way for each Council member several years ago to appropriate for their personally favored local not-for-profit the sum of $2,000? Fifteen Council persons went along with his program and cost the City more than $28,000 that year. Tom never explained how such an expenditure of taxpayer funds was legal, did he?
      With Tom McCarthy as a legislative leader, always looking for a great photo-op, but never where the buck stops, he has almost singlehandedly been responsible for the weakening of the City legislative body. Our Council suffers, without being aware, in comparison to legislative groups in other CT cities in key areas, as above.

      Why does the Mayor have one or more members of his administration at Council and Council Committee meetings? (It is not for what they are going to learn about good government.) On occasion perhaps Tom Gaudett, Angel DePara, or others may be able to offer a technical answer. However, more often than not it is Tom McCarthy who is able to keep “the Council herd” intact and moving in the preferred direction … not of their own choosing … and with not announced city priority list … where? Time will continue to tell.

  • Ron Mackey

    This is a TOTAL WASTE OF TIME AND MONEY. US Senator Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Himes are both a total waste and Blumenthal and Himes need as much support as they can get because they both are getting worse every day. Any information they got could have been gotten right here in Bridgeport in his office. They ALL NEED TO BE REPLACED including Senator Chris Murphy and all 20 City Council members.

  • Harvey Weintraub

    Oh what’s the difference, if they are spending their stipends on this trip at least they won’t end up donating our money to their favorite charities like they have done in the past. Maybe a couple of them will actually learn something down there. And think of it this way, at least with them all there, they can’t do any more damage here.

    • Mojo

      *** Charity donations are better than paying your personal bills, etc. like a certain council person who’s still on the council supposedly did and probably still does since Tommy Mac lets members do what they want outside of the city council rules and regs. ***

  • Lisa Parziale

    Guys, you both make good points! I’m defending the intent of these educational conferences, not necessarily the members attending. In my time, Fleeta would at times join us, Fleeta was a hands-on City Clerk. Council members like Auden Grogins, John Brannelly, Bubba, Bill Finch, Sybil Allen, Lydia Martinez, Pat Crossin, Audrey Martinsky and many others would take these trips seriously, discussing among ourselves what we got from them, and most of us found a way to share with our constituents.

    • Ron Mackey

      Audrey Martinsky, wow, I haven’t heard her name in a long time, what a nice woman.

    • John Marshall Lee

      The “intent of attending conferences” is to improve knowledge of Council person, expose Council to “best practices” ongoing in other cities (and not just pie-in-the-sky concepts), and by bringing the info home, to act on it for the benefit of taxpayers.

      Has anyone seen a reference by any Council person in years to serious budget cutting, and ideas gleaned in such meetings? Did you know other communities ration the number of City folks who attend using City taxpayer funds? In the instance of New Haven, less than a handful are sponsored, while in Bridgeport, you can use your stipend for the fun and party with no mention to the taxpayers about how carefully you used their funds? Ask to see the pictures they took at the conference and you will get to see where funds and fun went? Wouldn’t you expect a thank you even if no payback effect? Time will tell.

  • Ron Mackey

    “Beware the Ides of March.”

  • Jeff Kohut

    The information and contact between the widely dispersed (geographically), diverse cities and towns is vital in our new political world. Our councilpersons need the exposure/stimulation and learning opportunities provided by these conferences. And as Harvey stated; they’re doing it on their stipend.

    It can only help for our councilpersons to have the opportunity to think and learn about municipal government and the myriad challenges that municipalities face during these bizarre times in our country.

    Of all the things/issues to examine and challenge in regard to the City Council, this legitimate learning/networking opportunity really doesn’t merit attack. (Unless, of course, we learn of scandalous behavior or extravagance on the city’s dime after the fact.)

    • Ron Mackey

      Jeff, you said, “Our councilpersons need the exposure/stimulation and learning opportunities provided by these conferences.” Well Jeff, how do we know what you said was done? I think it would helpful if each council person who attends gives a written and an oral report at their next council meeting.

  • Frank Gyure

    Whatever all these comments happen to be, the problem is all 20 members of the City Council are puppets of a local political entity. Whatever they hear at this conference–or any other conferences or junkets will go in one ear and out the other. All 20 puppets listen to junkets within the boundaries of the City of Bridgeport, or Monroe, or Easton???

  • Jeff Kohut

    Ron: Great idea! (Seriously. It would be an exercise that would serve the Council and all of the citizens.) Great point! Great idea!

  • DougDavidoff

    It is up to individual office holders to be accountable for their actions. But like Lisa and Jeff, I defend the programs of the National League of Cities. Over many years, the NLC consistently employs staff with the greatest depth and expertise, ability to plan and execute conferences, briefings, and training on the most critical topics to cities, and a host of publications. It is, of course, entirely nonpartisan as cities are run nationwide by both partisan and nonpartisan officials.

    As a city hall reporter in Raleigh NC, and then in Indianapolis, I occasionally also attended NLC gatherings (at the newspapers’ expense, of course). And I regularly consulted and quoted NLC staffers to gain perspective for readers on how other cities handled the issues of the day in my city.

    The greatest ethical danger is schmoozing over meals with vendors. When I worked for Indiana’s equivalent of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), I attended and presented at conferences of the National Council of State Housing Agencies. As agencies that engage in bond sales to raise funds for first-time homebuyer mortgages and also dispense highly competitive low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs), we were particularly targeted for the opportunity to host meals and receptions by Wall Street financiers, developers, mortgage bankers, Fannie Mae, etc. I think I survived these years with my ethics intact. We were required to file written reports of our expenses and activities. But I worry about lax reporting and unexplained ethics policies in the Park City. I know a councilor who sits on an NLC committee with colleagues from across the nation, and I think this effort gives this councilor good perspective for her and for us in exchange for extra-credit efforts. It would be significant to learn of councilors who not only attend the meeting but also were asked or selected to present during the conference workshops or respond during panel discussions. It’s a two-way street, and giving can be even more significant for Bridgeport’s reputation than just taking.

  • Tom White

    As Lennie mentioned, I have commented on this issue based on my unique perspective.
    These conferences can be informative and helpful to decision makers. New Haven allows a maximum of three people to attend. They, in turn, report back to other members of their board of aldermen.
    Fourteen Bridgeport council members attended at taxpayer expense. They are not required to file reports of what they learned and took away from the experience.
    Based on my experience, the cost to taxpayers was about $40,000.
    McCarthy posts on his Facebook page that they were busy lobbying. Is that the role of the Bridgeport city council?
    Perhaps the city council members should spend their time on council duties. For example, did any of them read the ordinance for the new ‘robo parking meters?’ Apparently not.
    Doug Davidoff, I wish there were a way to download the background of why I and others have concerns and have become cynical. Your comments are very thoughtful. Some of your concerns have been exposed by others but never addressed.
    There is no justification for city council members to attend the NLC junkets or be involved in their activities.

  • Bob Walsh

    Cut the stipend to $1,000 dollars per member. Then you’ll see them prioritize.
    All in favor say AYE.
    Opposed NAY.
    The ayes have it.
    Adjourned.

  • John Marshall Lee

    Aggregating the revenues budgeted for stipend appropriations we can see $180,000 annually listed. It is important to know if the Council saw the City in fiscal difficulty they could reduce their own appropriation.

    Tom White has informed us how that was done in the past when stipends were funded at $500 annually. In a particular year the Council, using its budgeting wisdom cut their own allocation by 50% for at least one year limiting what they could spend to $250 in the subsequent year.

    So at one time, sharing the pain with the taxpayer may have been understood. Alas, in the past 10 years there has been no sign of such concern or thriftiness within their own limited budget. So despite the fact only 2/3 of the $180,000 is actually spent in recent years, there has been no attempt to reduce that amount by any percentage!! And despite the fact about $90,000 is budgeted for Other Services annually (and less than 20% of that is spent in most years) the City Council has taken no action in this regard.

    It is fair reason to call into question, the “taxpayer representation” by Council persons each year. Perhaps they require reminders from the truly thrifty, Bridgeport taxpayers who have been asked to fund ever greater obligations each year? Time will tell.

  • Tom White

    Bob, in 1992 (Lisa was there), the city council reduced their stipend by 50% in a gesture to recognize the city’ financial situation. Our annual stipend was $500 and we reduced it to $250.
    In every budget the council adopts a stipend amount. Each council member is allocated $9,000. In New Haven, the only other municipality that pays a stipend, their aldermen receive $2,300 and it cannot be used to attend conferences.
    There have been calls for them to reduce it but they ignore any such silly suggestion. A sense of entitlement?

    • Lisa Parziale

      Right on, Tom! I remember that well. What I can’t remember is how the stipend came into being. (I hope I had nothing to do with it.) When I was elected in ’83, there was no stipend.

  • Bob Walsh

    Tom,
    Correct me if I am wrong but I believe the language in the ordinance is up to the budgeted amount.
    The budgeted amount when I was on the council was $90,000 meaning if everyone used the stipend it came out to $4,500. If some did not then they could spend up to the $9,000.
    Did it change?

  • Tom White

    The ordinance does not specify a dollar amount as the New Haven ordinance does. The council can vote themselves any amount they wish by adopting the line item total for ‘stipends.’
    The ordinance has not been amended to reflect the use of pre-loaded debit cards, which McCarthy shepherded through after my ‘layoff.’

  • The Bridgeport Kid

    The city is on life support and these ass clowns find it prudent to piss away taxpayers’ money on a “junket.” Only in Bridgeport.

  • Tom White

    Jim Clark, a writer for the CT Post years ago, is credited with the expression “Bridgeport, where the circus never leaves town.”

    My contribution to that theme is “Same circus, different clowns.”

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