After a report that two members spent nearly $60,000 on travel since 2010, the chair of the Capital Metro board has asked a committee to consider new guidelines and limits for reimburseable travel expenses.
Mike Martinez, who also is an Austin city council member, sent an email to a transit agency official Sunday asking that the Capital Metro board’s audit and finance committee discuss several possible changes, including a greater emphasis on travel budget planning.
The email from Martinez to Capital Metro board relations manager Ed Easton came the same day the American-Statesman reported the travel expenses for Board Members Beverly Silas and Norm Chafetz, who have traveled to multiple conferences across North America during the past three years. Their travels came during a time when the board was seeking to limit overall Capital Metro expenditures.
Martinez said that, before Capital Metro adopts a new annual budget, he would like for board members to submit their projected travel plans for the coming year and estimate the costs of that travel. Additionally, he said he wants to remove a provision of current policy that allows board members to spend travel funds set aside for other board members who decide not to travel.
Martinez also said in his email to Easton that he would like the committee to consider a board travel policy prohibiting expenses at hotels within 50 miles of a member’s home.
“This is just a response to issues that were pointed out, and I think we can make even further improvements,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he hopes the board will adopt his suggestions as soon as possible — before the board considers Capital Metro’s upcoming budget and before deciding on a potential fare increase to riders. The committee is scheduled to meet today, but is not expected to consider the changes until next month because it was not yet on their agenda.
If the audit and finance committee does recommend travel policy changes, those changes would have to be approved by the full Capital Metro board.
Several board members could not be reached for comment Monday. Frank Fernandez, who chairs the committee, said he was not yet familiar with the specifics of Martinez’s ideas. But, “it is worthwhile looking into,” he said.
Board Member Ann Stafford said she would consider the changes.
“We want to have a policy that allows for board members to do the necessary travel that is good stewardship of taxpayer dollars and has some flexibility for unforeseen circumstances,” she said. “I don’t see any real issues with what he (Martinez) is proposing, but I do want to make sure we have some flexibility if necessary.”
The newspaper reported that Silas and Chafetz had spent far more on airline tickets, hotel rooms, restaurant meals and conference registrations than any of their fellow board members.
Their travel spending came as Capital Metro worked to stabilize its finances. The agency last raised fares in 2010 — the same year as a critical report from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission raised questions about how the agency spent its money. Recently, Capital Metro hired a consultant to determine if another rate hike is needed.
Silas and Chafetz have said the numerous conferences they have attended provided valuable information necessary to their leadership of the agency. They also said their expenditures have been within the agency’s budget for board travel, even though they have had to seek special permission to use the unspent travel funds of other board members.
About six weeks ago, the two board members sought permission to spend about $3,000 to attend a four-day national transportation conference in Austin. The money would have covered conference registration and hotel rooms at the Hyatt Regency. Martinez denied the request.
Silas and Chafetz did not return calls seeking comment Monday.