City Council at their meeting Monday reviewed new rules regarding their travel expenses when they go abroad on behalf of the city.
The five councilmembers currently share a $50,000 budget every year for such expenses, but on average, they only spend about $27,000 a year. They were given a choice between between “alternative A,” which would cover all travel costs like flights, hotels, and food, and “alternative B,” which would cover everything except for flights.
Councilmember John Heilman began the discussion emphasizing the necessity for any international travel to be approved by the council. Councilmember Sepi Shyne concurred and supported the proposed option that would allow airfare to be reimbursed. Given the modest remuneration of public officials in the city, who may also be juggling multiple jobs, Shyne argued that the full expenses of such business trips should be covered. However, she agreed that approval should come from the council for transparency and accountability reasons.
She reminded the council about Mayor John M. Erikson’s approved visit to the Vatican, marking the City of West Hollywood’s presence there for the first time.
Councilmember Lauren Meister highlighted concerns about the current budget allocation for travel expenses, noting that in 2023, 80% of the $50,000 budget was consumed by travel expenses of just two council members — Erickson and Vice Mayor Chelsea Byers. This situation, she argued, could potentially leave insufficient funds for other councilmembers who might wish to travel later in the year.
To address this issue, Meister proposed allocating a specific travel budget of $10,000 to each councilmember to ensure fairness and prevent budgetary constraints from affecting their ability to undertake necessary travel. Meister pointed to Santa Monica’s similar policy, where each councilmember is allocated $8,000 for travel, suggesting West Hollywood could set their budget at $10,000 per councilmember. Additionally, she recommended providing the mayor with an extra $1,000 to $2,000 for mayoral-specific conferences, like the Conference of Mayors, which other councilmembers do not attend.
Meister also mentioned the practice in Santa Monica where councilmembers who exceed their travel budget may request budget transfers from colleagues who have unused funds. This, she argued, would maintain fairness among all five councilmembers, ensuring each has the opportunity to travel as needed without the budget being prematurely depleted. She emphasized the importance of this equitable approach to avoid situations where council members might have to compete for travel funds, advocating instead for a fair and evenly split budget tailored to each council member’s needs, with additional funds available for the mayor’s specific events.
Councilmember Sepi Shyne raised concerns about the idea of reallocating unused travel budgets among councilmembers, which she saw as potentially politicizing budgetary decisions. Meister suggested that councilmembers instead request additional funds through formal council motions rather than informal reallocations.
Vice Mayor Buyers expressed support for “alternative A,” highlighting the rarity of international trips and referencing past instances where councilmembers attended significant events abroad, such as conferences in Rome and efforts related to establishing sister city relationships with Paris.
Council agreed on approving ‘Alternative A’ and mandated that any foreign travel would need individual case-by-case approval by the Council. There was consensus on the need to review and possibly increase the overall travel budget or reassess how the $50,000 allocation is managed, especially in light of it not being exceeded in past years but recognizing individual Councilmember travel budgets might necessitate a higher total.
The conversation also entailed a procedural adjustment for handling international travel requests by proposing amendments to the existing resolution. City Attorney Lauren Langer suggested adding a new point to Section 4B, stating all international travel requires prior Council approval, and removing pre-approved international destinations from the current list. This amendment aimed to streamline the approval process by potentially replacing an existing item that required Council approval for meetings and events with a more straightforward requirement for all international travel.