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An interesting discussion is brewing below this post about Ron Roberts’ explanations of his need to travel to China, and the relative laziness of other elected officials who haven’t found a way to go on them.

The latest reader makes a point I’d like to talk about:

I don’t think this is a waste of public funds. In the Far East, visits from government officials are a really big deal — even county supervisors. Even if no contracts are signed, these visits do send a very important message. Why should we ever have officials go visit any country? Because they show respect and honor for the other country and build up the relationship. Roberts understands the importance this holds in Asian cultures. Furthermore, to say these visits have been fruitless isn’t necessarily true. Who’s to say no one was encouraged to do business in San Diego by the symbolic act of a visit. Finally, I think it’s sort of preposterous to call these trips “vacations.” Trade missions are interesting but grueling affairs. Criticize, but be fair.

There is a very good and strong argument that people like Roberts do important work when they travel to places like this. What’s troubling about this is not the trip. There is a need for local big shots to go meet foreign big shots. I’m no isolationist.

The problem is the way this thing has been set up. For whatever reason, Roberts is unwilling to ask his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to spend taxpayer dollars to send him to China. Maybe he knows that they wouldn’t want to spend the money on those trips — that they might have trouble justifying the expense with the overall mission of county government, which is pretty limited to core functions, many of which are mandates from the state.

So Roberts essentially launders the trip. Using taxpayer money he controls he sends hundreds of thousands of dollars to the World Trade Center. Then the center turns around and gives a gift (the trip) to the Board of Supervisors. They have to give it to the board; they can’t just give it to Roberts. But everyone knows that Roberts is going to get it. He even goes so far as to plan the trip before he even gets formal approval from his colleagues.

If the county decided it wanted to invest thousands of dollars into building strong relationships with the Far East, I could be persuaded. I’d be interested in how they fit it within the mission of the county, but I am open to the concept.

Assuming they went forward with it, I would think they would want to plan the trip well, with a strong campaign strategy and perhaps a series of open meetings beforehand so that concrete goals can be established, a timeline outlined and the participants chosen well. One supervisor may have good ideas on how to build this region’s ties to the Far East.

But this way, Roberts gets to spend the money and decide all for himself how he wants to do this little bit of diplomacy.

And that’s what’s wrong with it.

SCOTT LEWIS

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