2 on Council emptied stipends
Tam and Apo spent the most, according to online records, mostly on researching issues
City Councilmen Todd Apo and Rod Tam had to come back for more allowance after spending their yearly stipends, according to Council online expense records.
Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz had to bail them out by granting an additional $1,000 each, transferring funds from the Council's staff training account. Tam for the second year was the highest spender with $10,533 in expenses, followed by Apo with $10,172, based on expenditures reported online as of this past week. Each member of the Council can spend $9,920.
Travel, food, communicating with constituents and tackling tough issues were among the reasons for expenditures for Tam, Apo and other Councilmembers. Photocopies and mailings also account for spending.
The 2005-2006 fiscal year is the second year the City Council has put the accounting of each member's expenses online and the second year that Council members were each allotted an equal amount for their allowances.
Dela Cruz said the allowances give Council members the flexibility to manage their own expenses. Before that, the Council chairman controlled and approved members' expenditures, and it also provides the public with a way to check on how Council members are spending that money.
"We're charged with handling the people's money and this is one account where in which we have exclusive control," Councilman Charles Djou said. "I think it is symbolic of how we would spend the $2 billion of the people's money if we were left to our own devices."
Councilman Nestor Garcia spent the least, with just under $1,250 in expenses.
"I'll spend taxpayers' dollars when I feel it is necessary and whether it does benefit the people," Garcia said. "I don't see very many opportunities where I can justify spending the money."
Councilmembers Djou and Barbara Marshall came in next, each having spent under $3,000.
Djou said his criteria for spending from the fund "is the same as last year, whatever reasonable expenses are necessary to run my office and trying to keep it as frugal as possible not spend any taxpayer money unnecessarily."
Councilmembers Gary Okino, Ann Kobayashi, Dela Cruz and Romy Cachola spent between $3,500 and $6,000. Apo said much of his expenditures went toward researching mass transit options.
"I guess my mentality was we're going to be making a decision on ... the largest infrastructure project in our history," said Apo, who until May was the transportation chairman. "So I think it behooves us to make sure we're going to be doing this right and that means get some information about what systems were done correctly, what systems were done incorrectly, take a look at what options are available to us so that we are making an informed decision."
Travel and conferences accounted for nearly $6,000 of Apo's expenditures that included trips to Dallas and Singapore.
He also said his expenditures reflect his desire to communicate with his constituents with a monthly newsletter costing nearly $2,000.
"We're doing something active to get information out as to what we're dealing with and what we want to hear about and what we're doing," Apo said.
Dela Cruz said the expenditures for all councilmembers reflect some of the biggest issues facing the city -- transportation and sewers.
"I think it's really an investment. If we can learn and understand and not make the same mistakes they made, we're saving money. When you're talking about these huge public works projects, to go back and redo them is a huge expense," Dela Cruz said.
Okino attended the largest rail transit conference in the nation in September in Salt Lake City.
"It's the key issue at this point. So I just needed to take a look at the different systems to how we could approach getting what we needed," Okino said.
And even though Okino did travel, he was still able to keep his expenses at $3,876, using less than half of his allowance.
Djou, Marshall, Garcia and Kobayashi did not charge travel to their expense accounts.
Tam also traveled, charging $3,159 to account for the trip to Japan with the mayor to inspect transit systems and solid waste technology. Tam was the Council public works chairman until May.
But Tam's account also includes more than $2,700 in food, mostly for meetings with constituents, administration members and lobbyists at different coffee houses and restaurants.
Tam has had a longstanding philosophy of meeting people in the community instead of at his City Hall office.
"I use the more grass-roots, country doctor type of approach, more personal," Tam said.
Tam said he feels guilty when constituents have to pay for parking and he thinks that meeting them at a restaurant over food makes them more comfortable.
"We drink coffee or they drink tea or whatever. If they want to eat something like a bowl of saimin, that's fine with me," he said. "It breaks the ice in terms of communication. It's a local way of relationships."
After the $1,000 was added to his account, Tam did not charge the cost of meetings to his account.
Tam said because most of his meetings are away from City Hall, he relies on his cell phone for communication. This past fiscal year, he spent $940 on cellular phone expenses, mostly overages. Tam said, however, that tried to reduce his cell phone expenses by changing plans and that's reflected in his cell phone bills going from a high of $356 one month to $25.98 a month.
The new fiscal year, which began yesterday, increases each councilmembers' allowance to $12,000.
Dela Cruz said that the allowance is being increased to accommodate the rise in costs for things such as airline tickets and postage.
Several members said they don't see the need for the increase.
"The City Council is no different. When we are trying to scrimp and save and reduce the burden on our taxpayers, the last thing we should be doing is being extravagant with our own budget," Djou said.