A San Diego school superintendent with a quarter million dollar annual salary is reported to have sought—and gotten—expense reimbursements from his district for some 303 meals over a three-year period totaling $11,500, despite receiving a monthly allowance of $800 for expenses, not including a $750 per month auto allowance. This double-dipping is not unique—the president of California State University, provided with a $9,000 yearly auto allowance, recently billed the university $103 for a month's driving around town. But the question raised by the latest report is—which guests, if any, are being treated to local officials' tax-supported dining hospitality?
As interpreted by the Attorney General, state laws allowing local government officials to obtain reimbursement from their agencies for "actual and necessary expenses" incurred in doing their jobs do not allow them to treat non-government guests to meals on the public tab. For exampple, Education Code Section 44032 states: "The governing board of any school district shall provide for the payment of the actual and necessary expenses, including traveling expenses, of any employee of the district incurred in the course of performing services for the district, whether within or outside the district, under the direction of the governing board." In a 1978 published opinion, the Attorney General concluded that the statutory phrase “actual and necessary expenses” did not include meals purchased for community leaders even though the purchase was "deemed to be for the benefit of and in the best interest of a school district.”
This distinction arises because the San Diego area superintendent's credit-card bills reportedly "do not list the guests at his meals, but a review of his calendar shows that he largely dines with board members, administrators and community leaders."
The restriction is not limited to school employees. The Attorney General has more recently concluded—and this would extend to any outlays of public funds, whether through reimbusements or credit card charges—that "(p)ublic funds of a general law city may not be expended to reimburse city council members for their expenses in purchasing meals for third parties, such as constituents, legislators and private business owners, at meetings held to discuss legislation or other matters of benefit to the city. If the charter so authorizes, public funds of a charter city may be expended for such purposes."
The law the A.G. was interpreting is Govenment Code Sections 53232 through 53232.4, which also govern county supervisors, school board trustees and special district directors. The bottom line: the public may have to pay for the business meals of local elected officials (and school employees), but it can't be billed for the meals of civilians they treat, no matter how V.I. those P.s are.
Note to editors and watchdogs: All this can be checked via the California Public Records Act.