Jacksonville, FL - Travel expenses from the Office of Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown are under the microscope in a new Council Auditor’s report that lists several serious concerns.
The Auditor studied the period of July 1, 2011 through October 31, 2012- which roughly corresponds with the first year of Mayor Alvin Brown’s administration. During that time period, the Office racked up $78,056 in travel costs. The total far surpasses any of the prior four years, which the Mayor’s office says is the result of a new focus on economic initiatives and development that would sometimes require travel.
One such trip- the Mayor visiting Brazil with the Governor for an economic development mission in October 2011- is specifically questioned by the Auditor. He found that a lobbyist paid airfare, passport costs and registration fees for the trip, totaling $2,351. The Auditor says accepting the gift was a violation of state and local law. In a response to the Auditor, Chief of Staff Chris Hand says the trip was a direct contributor to the City securing a development deal with Embraer. He further says the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce initially funded the trip, which they believed to be acceptable at the time because of a ruling from the Office of the General Counsel. After dispute on the ruling, Hand says the Mayor’s Office reimbursed the Chamber on the full cost.
Another trip, which the General Counsel says violated local law, took the Mayor, a City Councilman, and five City employees to New York to meet with bond rating agencies. According to the Auditor, a City vendor paid $15,000 for the trip, which happened in April 2012. The Auditor says the payment would have been considered a gift to each person, and therefore too expensive to be accepted. Hand says the travel arrangements for this trip were made by the Finance Department, not the Mayor’s Office. He says the expenses were billed to the City by the vendor and repaid. Additionally, he says they did not realize at the time that the initial payment by the vendor could be considered a gift.
In addition to raising these legal questions, the Auditor further says documents requested for the review were missing or insufficient, travel was not properly approved, trips were routinely rescheduled or cancelled at an additional cost to the City, and the means chosen for travel were not the most economical options. There are further issues with not disclosing travel paid by third parties in a timely manner.
The objective of the audit was “to determine whether travel transactions incurred by the mayor’s Office were appropriate, properly supported with accurate documentation and properly approved” per code and regulations. The Auditor’s Office says they were unable to initially confirm whether all the travel was appropriate because of the problems with documentation.
In Hand’s response to the Auditor, he says that in the spring of 2012- or the tail end of this audit period- they started a review of travel procedures. He says as a result of the review they “enhanced the review of travel forms, created checklists to ensure proper memorialization and documentation for the Mayor’s travel, reassigned travel responsibilities to new staff and conducted travel trainings with City employees.” Additionally, the response says they have new records affiliated directly with flight cancellations and credits and have hired a travel coordinator. The Mayor’s Office expects further recommendations at the end of this month from various travel and accounting divisions in the City about more efficiencies that could potentially be created.