There seems to be a cloud of confusion over Aurora’s so-called sister cities program and in particular a recent trip by some city officials to South Korea.
We’ll clear the air.
Despite what some city lawmakers have said off and on the council dais regarding queries about expenses for a May junket to Seongnam City in South Korea — it most certainly is the public’s business regarding who they went with, what they did there, where the money came from, and why clear and forthright answers to those questions are controversial and unanswered.
We get that the basis for a roiling spat over Aurora’s relationship with far-away municipalities and a recent trip to one such city in South Korea stems primarily from Councilman Charlie Richardson. For decades, Richardson was city attorney. Retired from the job, he was elected a ward councilman. Since then, Richardson has become a frequent gadfly and irritant to some other city lawmakers. There’s no doubt he’s persistent in his causes.
Richardson has been extremely critical of the sister city program, and he’s raised many good points with his very vocal objections. In gathering data to back his claims that the sister city program is a waste of money, Richardson has pushed to determine just how much public money was spent traveling to Seongnam and to what end.
His persistence and inferred accusations have angered some fellow city officials who went on the junket, ultimately creating a scene at this week’s city council meeting.
About two dozen elected city officials, employees and other area leaders went on the trip last month, including Mayor Steve Hogan, council members Bob LeGare and Brad Pierce, and City Manager Skip Noe. Hogan, Pierce and Noe took their spouses on the trip, apparently paying for their wives to attend.
Richardson has been determined to get a full accounting, and that’s caused great consternation.
“I don’t think it’s any of your business on what I spend my money on,” Pierce said during a tense exchange at a study session before the recent council meeting. “My trip was paid for by my funds — no city funds. It’s really none of your business, but I paid for my trip out of my funds.”
Pierce is dead wrong for numerous reasons. It’s unclear when he and others on the trip say “my funds” whether he and others mean city council travel funds or his personal money. But city travel funds are the public’s money, not his, and under state open records laws, they must be fully accounted for. The Sentinel’s own inquiry into the sister cities trip expenses is also unclear.
Even if Pierce used no city money to fly or partake in this event, he was one of three city council members, who under state law were subject to open meeting laws by the very nature of their association. In addition, Colorado’s Amendment 41 regulations, which limit “gifts” and freebies to elected officials, also require full transparency.
For those council members who think anything they do in their official capacity as elected or appointed officials is none of your business, they are gravely mistaken and out of line.
Our opinion is consistent with other government ethics agents, warning against allowing government officials to mix official business with personal pleasure if any public money is involved. While extended government business trips with spouses aren’t illegal, they’re bad business in that they present the appearance of impropriety. City council should ban the practice and prevent further controversy.
And while Richardson clearly has the right to research and opine on this issue, once he and the public get the information he wants and has a right to, it’s time to move on. We’re also skeptical whether the local sister cities agency, this week awarded a city grant of $112,00, and similar programs net economic or any real benefit to the public. Compelling arguments can be made from both sides. But it’s clear that a majority of the city council values the program and believes Aurora will glean concrete benefits in the future.
After the junket numbers are made public, let it go. There will be yet another issue in the future that demands transparency and accountability. When it happens, we’ll applaud the efforts of those who make it clear that every government dollar spent and action undertaken most certainly is the public’s business.