Travel and meal expense reports for public agencies are journalistic staples.
It’s an area that consistently produces interesting stories, and occasionally reveals misdeeds. The public deserves to know what its money’s being spent on and that rules are being followed. Oftentimes public officials have legitimate answers as to why they had to pay $90 for a dinner at an out-of-town conference.
But in two of our recent stories, public officials opened up a window into their thought processes in replying to our questions about their high-end travel or meals. And they revealed the disconnect that sometime exists between the officials and the people they’re serving.
In June, Emily Alpert wrote about Superintendent Terry Grier used federal funds for disadvantaged children to pay for a high-end dinner that included two orders of a gourmet beef called wagyu.
Here’s how he responded when talking about his per-diem:
The superintendent’s contract, which originally included a $30 limit per person per meal for reimbursable meals, was amended last October to allow him to charge San Diego Unified for “reasonable out-of-pocket costs” and now lists no specific dollar limit. Grier, who earns $269,000 annually plus a $10,000 car allowance, said that the limit was lifted for practical reasons.
“Have you ever tried to eat on $25?” Grier asked a reporter. “I promise you it is very difficult to do.”
Predictably, one reader noted that he tries to feed his entire family on $25 a meal.
In our most recent expense story posted last night, airport authority Chairman Bob Watkins suggested that someone like an auditor (or a reporter) couldn’t relate to business travel expenses:
Watkins compared voiceofsandiego.org’s examination of authority expenses to a “person who works for the Internal Revenue Service who’s making $40,000 a year and goes in and audits someone who lives in a $1 million home or $2 million home. They’re going to be skewed in terms of, ‘Wow, I don’t have that.’”
It’s already generating some response.
These officials often make compelling arguments by pointing out that these are dinner meetings that they need to be attending to conduct business and, therefore, can’t head down the block for McDonald’s.
But comments like these don’t make their case any stronger.