The elected officials, who are paid $88,664 annually, voted unanimously at their regularly scheduled meeting to direct county staff to write a policy about how employees — including members of the Board of Supervisors — will be reimbursed for meals and mileage. The supervisor luncheons may continue once a formal policy is adopted.
Before casting his affirmative vote, Fifth District Supervisor Mike Ennis echoed the sentiments expressed by his fellow board members that they want to be sure they are in compliance with the state’s open meeting law. “I want to know exactly what I can and cannot do as a member of the Board of Supervisors,” he said.
In addition to their annual salaries, supervisors are reimbursed for costs associated with their regular travel within and outside of Tulare County for meetings, lobbying trips and community events. But there currently exists no formal policy to regulate their actions, or their reimbursements. In the first half of 2009, they were collectively reimbursed $19,985 for car allowances and mileage. Additionally, the public picked up the tab for 228 lunches in the first half of 2009, totaling $4,472, or nearly $20 per meal, according to figures collected by the Visalia Times-Delta.
“It came as a surprise to me ... [that protocols] have never been reduced to writing,” First District Supervisor Allen Ishida said. In response to rising public concern over the amount of taxpayer money being spent on the reimbursements amid the recession — which has translated to hundreds of layoffs, reduced services and a loss of $13.3 million in revenues in the current fiscal year — County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau said the new policies will be among several administrative guidelines that will soon be reassessed.
“This has taken our attention away from constituent matters, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of good things for the county.” According to Rousseau, the county has 37 administrative regulations, eight of which have been revised under his watch, and ten more with modifications on the horizon. He apologized for not having the reimbursement policy revisions finished sooner. “I’m going to push the staff [to write the policies,] much greater than I have to this point,” he said.
While board members said they were glad that new guidelines are being drafted, they also maintain that they have never violated the Brown Act, as some have claimed. The Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, requires that legislative bodies such as counties, cities, schools and special districts meet in public when a majority of the members hear or discuss matters within their jurisdiction.
“Board members may have discussions during meals concerning job issues of common interest that are outside of the subject matter jurisdiction of the board as a whole. These would include such matters as the official activities of individual supervisors, travel planning, and management of the individual supervisors’ offices. These are work-related matters, but not within the scope of the Brown Act,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Worthley wrote in a letter to a watchdog group. “At no time did members of the Board of Supervisors hear, discuss, deliberate, or take any action on any item within their jurisdiction in violation of the Brown Act while eating together.”
Following a series of articles concerning the Supervisors published by the Times-Delta, the watchdog group, Californians Aware, in February sent supervisors a letter demanding it publicly acknowledge that it would no longer hold dining meetings where a majority of supervisors are present together, or where business within the board’s jurisdiction is discussed.
“Now and again you hear about council members or board members going to a restaurant or maybe a tavern after a meeting to wind down, but a consistent practice of holding luncheons before meetings involving a majority of the members in a body is unprecedented in my [30 years of] experience,” Attorney Terry Francke, co-founder of Californians Aware, said.