Dela Cruz passes limit for Council expenses
Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz outspent the eight other City Council members and was the only one to exceed an $18,000 spending limit this past fiscal year, according to online preliminary expense reports.
From Zippy's to Pittsburgh
According to preliminary reports* detailing each City Council member's expenses from July 1, 2007, to June 30, Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz depleted his $18,000 allotment while Councilman Gary Okino spent the least.
*Reports are expected to be finalized the week of July 21. Figures could change based on last-minute expenses.
|» 1. Donovan Dela Cruz
|» 2. Rod Tam
|» 3. Nestor Garcia
|» 4. Romy Cachola
|» 5. Ann Kobayashi
|» 6. Todd Apo
|» 7. Charles Djou
|» 8. Barbara Marshall
|» 9. Gary Okino
Dela Cruz's biggest expense was his out-of-state travel -- more than $10,000 on six trips to attend conferences for the National Association of Counties, an organization of which he is a board member.
"I'm the one on the NACo board, so I have to go on the most meetings," Dela Cruz said last week.
Dela Cruz will have to pay back the expenses that exceeded the limit, estimated at $200, according to Clayton Wong, the Council's fiscal officer. The reports, which disclose every expense from July 1, 2007, to June 30, should be finalized within the next two weeks, Wong said.
Councilmembers are given wide discretion on their individual accounts, with the power to charge the taxpayers for a variety of expenses, including cell phone charges, business travel and even leis given to guests at events.
"My stated policy has been that each councilmember is responsible for his or her contingency fund, and their minds and heart and conscience are what govern what they spend it on," said Council Chairwoman Barbara Marshall, who created the policy for the expense accounts.
Some councilmembers are more frugal than others, such as Councilman Gary Okino, spending the least at $5,222. Okino has typically spent the least of all the councilmembers, taking the $250 monthly car allowance given to each person but declining cell phone reimbursements.
The biggest spender behind Dela Cruz was Councilman Rod Tam with $17,255. Tam -- who is known for treating his constituents and visitors to meals at his favorite spot, Zippy's Restaurant -- expensed a meal at an average of once every other day. Most of Tam's meals are inexpensive -- as little as $2 and averaging about $30. This year he spent at least $5,167 on 162 meetings, which also included a $400 dinner at Empress Restaurant with visiting dignitaries from China.
Other high spenders included Councilman Nestor Garcia at $16,528, expensing $5,000 for bulk mail last month and $2,700 for a trip to Miami and Pittsburgh to research rail transit. Garcia did not expense his cell phone use, but his senior adviser got a $43 monthly credit.
Over the past several years, trips usually accounted for a bulk of the expenses councilmembers acquired. Tam spent nearly $2,000 on a trip to Guilin, a city in southern China, to establish a sister-city relationship with Honolulu. Cachola and Apo went with Garcia to Miami and Pittsburgh to visit their mass transit systems for background information to help in making decisions for Honolulu's rail transit system.
Since 2004, councilmembers have been required to disclose their expenses online in efforts to make government more transparent.
In the past, councilmembers had less money in their accounts -- in fiscal year 2007, each was given $12,000 -- but not every expense, such as mileage reimbursement and cell phone bills, was reported online.
"There were hidden expenses in the sense that they weren't published," Marshall said.
Under the current policy, all expenses are reported except mileage reimbursement for staff members, which comes out of a different account. In this current fiscal year, each councilmember will have $100 more to spend. Councilman Charles Djou criticized the large amount allotted to each councilmember, saying that some minimum wage-earners do not make $18,000 a year.
Djou, who spent $7,181 this year, has been a long-standing critic of the Council's expense accounts. In 2005, when each person was given $9,920, Djou said then that the City Council should consider reducing the amount to as low as $6,000 a person.
Marshall also implemented a new policy to reimburse councilmembers for travel expenses after the fact instead of the city paying for plane tickets and hotel rooms prior to the trip.
As a result, Dela Cruz asked for a $106 reimbursement for credit card interest charges because he had to pay for his trips to the mainland ahead of time.
Marshall said she had hoped that by requiring councilmembers to pay for their travel expenses initially, they would be more prudent in their spending.