Monday night, the council denied Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews a $2,500 trip to Dallas for an economic development conference Aug. 24 to 25.
“This was on the agenda as a professional courtesy to my peers, and they decided they didn’t think it was a worthy expenditure,” Mathews said.
Council members Cris Welsh, Debra Williams and Jim Sebastian voted against paying for the trip. Tim Killingsworth and Leonard Church voted in favor of it.
The trip is part of the Cobb Chamber’s Economic Development for a Growing Economy initiative and is called Opportunity Dallas 2014. The agenda item from the council meeting said the trip “is an elite opportunity to gather best practices related to all areas of the EDGE strategy. During the trip, visitors will examine how Dallas attracts talent and defines its communities as well as tour the city’s business incubators and sporting facilities and meet with Dallas’ economic development leaders.”
The agenda item said the $2,500 price tag covers “ground and air transportation, hotel and some meals.”
Welsh said it was too expensive.
“I don’t think it was a wise use of money,” she said. “The price was a huge part of it; $2,500 is a lot of money for a three-day trip.”
New members shake up council
Williams and Sebastian both are in their first year on the council. Williams said the previous council likely would have sent Mathews to Dallas.
“It’d be 3-2 in favor,” she said. “The new members — I know I can speak for Sebastian and myself — we’re looking at this entirely different.”
Williams talked about how some politicians think taxpayers should pay for programs that benefit them personally. She said former Kennesaw councilman Jeff Duckett, who lost to Sebastian last November, worked out a deal where the city paid for half of his $3,000 cost to participate in Leadership Cobb, another Chamber program. Williams said the city paid $1,500 for the program even though Duckett lost and is no longer representing the city.
“Those are the types of things that make career politicians and set politicians up for a lifestyle of staying in politics,” Williams said. “I have a huge issue with that. The citizens paid half of Duckett’s Leadership Cobb, and he was not an elected official.”
After the vote, Mathews seemed upset the council members did not mention anything about their opposition to the trip before voting against it.
“The irony of the whole thing is this was put on the agenda as a courtesy to get the authority to do so,” Mathews said. “The courtesy wasn’t extended to me. They didn’t support it or tell me they would vote against it.”
Mathews said similar expenditures were approved in the past, including “around $2,000” to pay for Welsh to attend a Cobb Chamber program in December 2013.
Welsh said that was a different situation.
“They are not even remotely the same,” she said. “I’m in the Honorary Commanders program through the Chamber. It’s $1,700, which the council voted for. It’s a year-long program and when we do excursions I pay with my own money. It’s also a program Mark has gone through. This is $2,500 for a three-day trip on economic development. Economic development is not his job.”
Welsh said Bob Fox, the city’s economic development director, would have been a better candidate to go on the trip.
Mathews said he may still attend the conference. He could veto the item, pay his own way or go using city money despite the vote.
“I haven’t made a final decision yet,” he said. “Typically, those items are put on just as a courtesy and spread on the minutes. Our charter and everything allows us to do the business of the city as we deem necessary.”
This isn’t the first time Mathews’ use of taxpayer funds has come under fire.
Between December 2012 and September 2013, Mathews spent more than $8,000 on restaurant tabs, flights to conventions and events across the country, iPad accessories and memorabilia for city residents using a city-issued credit card.
Kennesaw has no documented limits on credit card spending by the mayor and council members, who are given the cards after being sworn into office.
The MDJ exposed the council’s use of credit cards in October 2013, and Kennesaw council members Duckett, Jenkins and Matt Riedemann were swept out of office the next month.
Other officials not going
None of the other five mayors in Cobb County said they planned to go on the trip, though Brooks Mathis, executive director of the EDGE initiative and a vice president of the Cobb Chamber, said all were invited. Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee, who co-chairs the EDGE program, said he will not be attending either.
EDGE is a five-year initiative which is in its second year. The program’s goals are to create 7,500 new jobs, increase payroll earnings and income by $420 million and $7,000 per capita in Cobb County, reduce unemployment to 5.5 percent, increase the public school graduation rate by 4 percent and increase the number of college-bound students in Cobb by 7 percent, according to the program’s annual report.
Mathis said this is the third trip taken as part of EDGE. The first trip was to Fairfax, Va., and the second was to Cleveland, Ohio, where the group toured that city’s bus rapid transit program. Mathis said the trips help leaders learn from the places they visit.
“They’ve got a stadium in Dallas similar to the project we’re working (with the Braves),” Mathis said. “It will show how they are able to develop and work a stadium project. There are small business incubators we’re going to look at… We compete with Dallas quite a bit on economic development.”