Travel expenses spur Akron City Council discussion
Also, sanctuary state resolution introduced
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Akron City Council approved budget appropriations for the year during the Feb. 13 meeting after engaging in a discussion that raised differences in how much Council members travel on official business.
During the Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Deputy Finance Director Steve Fricker said Council planned to take $10,000 from its travel budget to support the Akron Cares program to help residents who can’t pay their water and sewer bills. That still leaves about $40,000 for travel in 2017, he said. Last year, $32,200 was spent on Council travel.
The budgeted amount limits each Council member to about $3,000 a year, Council President Marilyn Keith (D-Ward 8) said. But Councilwoman Linda Omobien (D-at large) asked how that change will impact travel that she and Councilman Russel Neal Jr. (D-Ward 4) are already committed to through their work with the National League of Cities and Ohio Municipal League.
“We have committed ourselves to several national boards that require attending four meetings a year,” she said. “These are commitments we’ve already made.”
Committee chair Mike Freeman (D-Ward 9) said participation on the boards is not something required of Council members, and he indicated that if members go over their allotted amount, they may not be reimbursed.
“I don’t think I have to get permission” to attend or participate on a board, Omobien said. “When I bring in my travel receipts, those will be honored.”
Neal raised concerns because he said the proposed budget changes were not discussed by members prior to the meeting.
“This is Council’s budget,” he said. “Council needs to discuss its budget and how it’s allocated.”
Council recently approved the $15,000 fee to belong to the National League of Cities. According to the organization’s website, more than 1,600 cities, towns and villages are members of the group that is a resource and advocate for cities and their leaders.
Council also approved $15,000 for its 2017 membership in the Ohio Municipal League, which is a statewide association serving the interests of Ohio municipal government, according to its website.
Neal said participation in the organizations is “an investment” and a way for Council members to be exposed to best practices, as well as learn from colleagues in other cities.
Freeman said he spends very little on travel and has taken advantage of information provided in publications from the two organizations. According to information provided by Keith, Council members Freeman, Jeff Fusco (D-at large) and Margo Sommerville (D-Ward 3) had no travel expenses in 2016. Omobien had expenses of $8,089 and Neal had $4,525, while the remaining amounts ranged from Tara Mosley-Samples’ (D-Ward 5) $2,481 to Zack Milkovich’s (D-Ward 10) $1,332. Keith said travel expenses include transportation, lodging and meals, as well as additional classes that some members opt to take at conferences.
Omobien said she has no problem with the public being aware of her travel on behalf of Council, and has asked city officials to post her expenses online so residents can see them.
“There are no secrets as far as what I do for Council,” she said. “I’ve always pushed for transparency.”
Neal also said he would like Council to have policies and procedures in place for how the budget is addressed, to which Fusco said it’s the Council president’s responsibility to manage the budget.
“That’s how we’ve done it in the past for several years,” Fusco said.
Keith said Council conducted budget hearings over the past several weeks and all members also received binders with budget information.
“We have a difference of opinion for how the process has played out,” she said.
Also this week, Council heard first reading of a resolution proposed by Mosley-Samples that urges Ohio Gov. John Kasich to declare Ohio a sanctuary state and sign legislation encouraging communities to act as sanctuary cities.
Council took time on the resolution, as Samples said it is a complex issue that her colleagues should study over the next couple of weeks. But she did express her support for the state being a welcoming place for refugees.
“They are good people with good hearts and they work hard,” she said, noting the influx of international residents that have populated parts of the city, such as North Hill. The resolution notes that Cincinnati, Oberlin, Dayton and Lorain have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities.
Councilman Rich Swirsky (D-Ward 1) noted Council has already passed a resolution against President Donald Trump’s executive order that banned immigrants from certain countries. But he agreed with Samples that the sanctuary issue is “a more complicated issue.” Trump signed an executive order his first week in office that would halt federal funding for sanctuary cities.
The Rev. John Beaty, a West Akron resident, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting and gave his support to the resolution. A group of about 20 people who accompanied him to the meeting also stood to signal their support of the issue.
Resident Mark Foertch spoke against the idea during the public comment portion.
“We have a right to deport people who have violated our laws,” he said.
In other business this week, Council adopted the 2017 capital budget, and city officials noted that all projects with expenditures that require legislation would come before Council again.
Placed on the consent agenda for adoption at the next Council meeting were:
√ an ordinance amending the Copley-Akron Joint Economic Development District contract to add property at 1348 S. Cleveland-Massillon Road in Copley. City officials said the 1.5-acre parcel was originally in the district, then removed but is now being put back as it is transitioning from residential to retail; and
√ an ordinance allowing a five-year lease with Akronym Brewing for property at 58 E. Market St. to be used as a microbrewery and pub. The 3,000-square-foot previously unused space is located on the north side of the parking deck adjacent to the Akron-Summit County Main Library.
Also this week, Omobien presented a proclamation to Susan and Brian Vogelsang, Highland Square residents who will be moving from the area after many years of service to the community. Susan Vogelsang is the co-founder of Project Ujima in the Buchtel cluster of Akron Public Schools. Omobien added she has been an ardent supporter of public education in the city.
Council will not meet Feb. 20 due to the Presidents’ Day holiday. Council will next meet Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers on the third floor of the Akron Municipal Building, 166 S. High St. Committee meetings are set to begin at 1 p.m. that day, also in Chambers.
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