Official wants travel expense transparency

By Vanessa Kahin
Staff writer

Travel expenses became a hot-button issue at Tuesday’s Curry County Commission meeting, with one commissioner suggesting more transparency on how the money is spent and how the travel benefits the county.

Commissioner Ben McDaniel provided information from the county finance department that shows travel expenses accrued by Commissioner Tim Ashley between Jan. 9, 2013, and March 20 totals $11,874.23.

McDaniel said a lack of feedback as to what is learned during trips is a concern for him.

“We’re not going over the budget,” McDaniel said. “but we have a commissioner who spends a lot more that the (rest of) us.

“The county manager cannot just simply put a commissioner’s travel request on the consent agenda,” McDaniel said. “I don’t consider commission travel as routine if the trip involves leaving the state, (meaning) flights and hotels will need to be paid for; the commission should discuss the trip.”

McDaniel also said the discussion should include what the trip is for and what they will learn during the trip that will impact Curry County.

Ashley said the Curry County Commission is a fee-paying member of various organizations, and at least two are national. When these organizations have meetings or events, he is usually the commissioner who attends, he said.

“I’m the only commissioner to volunteer to go to these,” he said. “If we’re not going to participate, then we have to ask ourselves why are we paying dues to these organizations?”

Although he has not seen the list of numbers and totals that McDaniel produced, Ashley said he gathers from what he heard at Tuesday’s meeting that the numbers refer to trips that took place over two fiscal years; 2012-2013 and 2013-2014.

He also said a trip he goes on for the commission “is not a vacation.” Ashley noted that, upon his return from traveling, he provides the commission information about what he learned at the event.

Ashley said one of the most recent examples of this would be ideas on how to collaborate with a neighboring military base; information he learned at Association of Defense Communities workshops.

“I have definitely learned a lot from those events I have attended,” Ashley said. “I think it’s a benefit, otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commission approved a trip to an Association of Defense Communities conference to take place in June in Washington, D.C. In light of the discussion about his travel expenses, Ashley asked the commission if anyone else would volunteer to go. No one did.

Ashley’s travel expenses include attending conferences for the Association of Defense Communities, the New Mexico Association of Counties, and the National Association of Counties. The most expensive item on Ashley’s list is a trip to the 2013 National Association of Counties Conference in Washington, D.C. in April 2013. Expenses for that trip totaled $2,293.70.

McDaniel’s numbers also showed travel expenses of all other commissioners during the January 2013-March 2014 time period:

• McDaniel, $1,147.35;

• Commission Chairman Frank Blackburn, $810;

• Commissioner Wendell Bostwick, $2,535.34;

• Commissioner Robert Sandoval, $960.89.