Capital Metro board members Monday voted to tighten their board travel policy, prohibiting members from getting reimbursed for hotel stays within 50 miles of their homes and from transferring budgeted travel money among themselves.
The move came six weeks after an American-Statesman report highlighted nearly $60,000 in expenses in a three-and-a-half-year period among two board members. This summer, the two members, Norm Chafetz and Beverly Silas, had asked the taxpayer-funded agency to cover their hotel costs in Austin during a recent conference.
“I think it was an opportunity for us to improve,” Capital Metro board chairman Mike Martinez said Monday. “I think it shows that as a board, we lead by example. We have asked the agency to tighten its belt, and we also have to demonstrate our ability to do the same.”
The board approved the new policy in a 7-1 vote with little discussion.
Chafetz voted against the changes, but did not say why. Silas supported the new policy.
The new rules also require board members to submit a travel plan for the next fiscal year showing where and why they plan to travel and to provide an estimated trip cost.
Silas and Chafetz, both of whom have attended several conferences in recent years, have said that their trips provided valuable perspectives necessary to their leadership for the transit agency and that their expenses were paid from a pool of budgeted money given to each board member — this year it was about $3,000 — that others simply close not to spend.
The agency’s previous policy allowed board members to use unspent funds from other members if they depleted their annual allowances.
A review of travel records found that their travel had been more frequent than extravagant and that Silas and Chafetz typically booked airline tickets at least a month in advance of conferences to ensure cheaper fares and that they stayed at hotels with a less-expensive conference rate.
Yet the trips also came during a time when the agency has faced questions about whether it had spent taxpayer money appropriately. In 2010, Capital Metro was the subject of a critical report from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission that questioned how the agency spent its budget.
In its review, the newspaper found other Capital Metro board members had spent only a fraction of those costs on airline tickets, hotel stays, restaurant meals and conference registrations compared to Silas and Chafetz.
The requests from Silas and Chafetz for the agency to pay for their local stays at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Lady Bird Lake during the American Public Transportation Association event last month came as they departed for another conference. Because it would have busted their travel budgets allotted by the agency, it required them to seek special approval from Martinez to cover the cost.
Martinez declined, saying, “I do not believe staying in the host hotel for a local conference is the best use of our taxpayer funded travel.”
Immediately after the newspaper’s report, Martinez recommended the travel policy changes. Before Monday’s vote by the full board, its finance, audit and administration committee had unanimously approved the changes.
This story is part of the American-Statesman’s look at travel expenses among Capital Metro board members. Read previous reports at mystatesman.com