Six weeks ago, two Capital Metro board members decided they wanted to attend workshops and seminars at a national transportation conference, so they asked the taxpayer-funded agency to cover their estimated $3,000 cost for registration and hotel rooms at a Hyatt Regency over the four-day event.
The catch: The conference was in Austin. The Hyatt, on Lady Bird Lake, is a half-hour commute from board member Norm Chafetz’s Williamson County home, and about seven miles from Beverly Silas’ house in Northeast Austin.
When the expense request reached Capital Metro Board Chairman Mike Martinez in late May, he said no. “I do not believe staying in the host hotel for a local conference is the best use of our taxpayer funded travel,” Martinez wrote in an email to them.
Yet it was only the latest in a long string of travel reimbursement requests from Silas and Chafetz, both volunteer board members who operate their own consulting firms. In the past three-and-a-half years, the two board members have amassed combined travel bills of nearly $60,000 while flying to destinations across North America on the transit conference circuit.
While attending sometimes three conferences a year, Silas and Chafetz have built travel records that far exceed those of their fellow board members, all of whom have spent only a fraction of those costs on airline tickets, hotel stays, restaurant meals and conference registrations, an American-Statesman review has found.
The requests from Silas and Chafetz for Capital Metro to pay for their local stays during the upcoming American Public Transportation Association event came as they departed for another conference in Salt Lake City. Because it would have busted their personal travel budgets allotted by the agency, it required them to seek special approval from the board chairman to cover the Austin hotel and registration costs.
Silas and Chafetz said the numerous conferences they attend provide valuable information and perspectives necessary to their leadership of the Austin-area transit agency.
“I find value in going to conferences,” Chafetz said. “I think it is incumbent upon board members to stay abreast of what is happening in the industry. I don’t think my travel has been out of bounds.”
Yet they also have built their travel billsduring a period in which Capital Metro officials have struggled to stabilize the agency’s finances — a years-long effort that has included curtailing board member travel. The agency raised rider fares once in 2010, and it recently hired a consultant to determine if another rate hike is needed.
Board members were careful to not directly condemn the travel, saying they want to preserve working relationships with their colleagues. They also noted the agency hadn’t exceeded its overall travel budget.
But they acknowledged that, against a backdrop of austerity, Silas’ and Chafetz’s disproportionately large expense accounts represented at least a perception problem.
“It is within the policy we have adopted as a board, but compared to the rest of the board, I think it is going to be viewed by many folks as excessive,” Martinez, also an Austin City Council member who has spent $5,214 in travel during the same period, said of the Silas’ and Chafetz’s expenses.
Board member John Langmore, who has spent $7,492 in travel fees since 2010, said, “I think some level of travel associated with keeping yourself informed of the industry, best practices, understanding the trends that will effect Capital Metro — all of those things make great sense to me.”
He declined to comment specifically on whether Chafetz’s and Silas’ expenses met or surpassed that standard.
Capital Metro board member and City Council Member Chris Riley, whose travel fees since 2010 were $2,767, said he also understands the value of conference attendance and that he appreciates Chafetz’s and Silas’ board service.
He added, however, “Obviously there is a point at which travel may become excessive and where the additional cost of travel becomes increasingly difficult to justify. I can understand why some citizens might have some concerns about the amounts of travel they see there.”
Chafetz and Silas pointed out that they have managed to travel so extensively by using a pool of budgeted money given to each board member, and that others have simply chosen not to spend it. They said their greater job flexibility also allows them to get away more easily. They added that their conference participation has helped them grow as board members while learning about issues facing other public transit agencies and shaping their opinions about Capital Metro’s future.
Silas said, “I enjoy being educated. I love being in a position where I can add value to my position on the board by being informed of what is happening in the industry, to help not only me, but the rest of my board members and our staff make appropriate decisions that will best serve our community.”
Capital Metro serves a 522-square-mile area that includes Austin and surrounding cities such as Manor, San Leanna, Jonestown and Lago Vista, as well as unincorporated portions of Travis and Williamson counties. The eight-member board oversees the agency’s $193.3 million operating budget, which is primarily funded by a one-penny per dollar sales tax on purchases within the service area.
Board members are volunteers who typically have public policy or transportation experience. They are generally appointed by local elected bodies such as the Austin City Council and the Travis and Williamson County commissioners. Members serve three-year terms.
Silas, a retired external affairs director and spokeswoman for AT&T who now operates her own public affairs company, was named to the board by Travis County commissioners. Williamson County commissioners appointed Chafetz, a consultant whose resume says he has experience in project management, sales and marketing. Both began their terms in January 2010.
That same year saw travel costs among the board, records show, topping out at $44,311. Of that, new members Silas and Chafetz were responsible for nearly half — Silas spent $11,944, while Chafetz’s travel fees reached $8,998.
The agency has faced a turbulent financial history in the past decade, with questions about whether it has spent taxpayer money appropriately. The rise in travel expenses, coupled with a critical report from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission the same year raising questions about how Capital Metro managed its budget, pushed the board to re-examine its out-of-town trips.
“We wanted a policy that took into account the taxpayers who are funding our travel and whether it is a worthy expense,” Martinez said.
Under new rules, approved in August 2010, board members split a pool of travel money budgeted each year to “attend transit-related conferences and pursue other educational opportunities for the betterment of the authority.” In 2011 and 2012, board members received $3,000 each for travel, an amount officials calculated would allow them to attend one conference each. This year, the agency doubled that amount to allow board members to attend two events.
“This amount shall include registration fees and all allowable reimbursable expenses such as air travel, lodging, per diem and other expenses,” according to the policy.
Board members who want to surpass their annual allotment can apply to use unspent funds from another board member if the board chairman signs off — hence the approval Silas and Chafetz sought from Martinez for their Austin hotel stays.
Since the new policy, overall board travel costs have dropped from $44,311 in 2010 to $17,739 in 2011.
In recent years, some board members have spent relatively little. The last time Ann Stafford traveled on behalf of the agency was in 2012, when she spent $2,212 to attend a conference.
“My job keeps me in Austin a lot of nights and a lot of weekends because I work in the performing arts,” said Stafford, a director of development at the Texas Performing Arts center at the University of Texas.
Riley said, “Obviously, both Council Member Martinez and myself have obligations to the City Council that take priority, and so there are many gatherings that are just not workable given the council’s schedule.”
Chafetz and Silas have continued to far outpace other board members in travel expenses. Of the $49,695 total spent on board travel in 2011, 2012 and so far in 2013, the two board members have rung up tabs of $38,263.
A review of travel records suggests Silas’ and Chafetz’s travel has been more frequent than extravagant. They have typically booked airline tickets at least a month in advance of conferences to ensure cheaper fares and stayed at hotels at a less-expensive “conference rate.”
But that doesn’t mean the trips have come cheaply, with expenditures topping $4,000 for a single trip in one instance.
In the past three-and-a-half years, their travel also has required them to seek special permission to use the unspent travel funds from other board members, although the board has remained within its overall travel budget.
Chafetz said leaving Austin has given him the opportunity to learn about bike-sharing programs, for instance — an effort underway locally that allows riders to use publicly owned bikes for short-term trips in urban areas. As Capital Metro was beginning its commuter rail service, Chafetz said another conference taught him about “positive train control” — a way of monitoring trains to increase safety.
Chafetz said that this year, he and other board members were encouraged to attend the Salt Lake City conference from the agency’s CEO.
Silas said at a recent conference, she learned about how the city of Denver built partnerships with contractors and residents and a community college district while building the city’s rail line to provide jobs for residents along the line. Silas said she wants to help bring that idea to Austin.
According to travel records, both have frequently attended the annual American Public Transportation Association legislative conference held each spring, where they meet with congressional members, Capitol Hill staff and “Washington opinion markers,” the event’s website said.
They have attended events in cities such as Vancouver and Eugene, Ore., and the association’s annual conference, which offers “general sessions and forums focused on current issues facing public transportation and features first-rate professional speakers.”
Silas and Chafetz said they asked the agency to pay for hotel rooms in Austin during the upcoming hometown event in part for convenience.
“I don’t live close to downtown,” said Chafetz, whose home is about 18 miles from the Hyatt Regency. “I live in Williamson County, and I really don’t want to have to go home every night and come back every morning to attend sessions. I think that is counterproductive. Aside from the sessions, you are networking with board members; you have early morning events, you have evening events, you have social events. At 5 o’clock, you don’t just go home.”
Silas added that she has been intimately involved in helping plan the upcoming conference and is serving as its program chair.
“It would be very convenient for me to be onsite at the hotel, just in case our out-of-town guests needed assistance on any level,” she wrote. “I wanted to be a good host.”
Tony Plohetski is a member of the Statesman’s investigative team focusing on government accountability. He has recently reported on an unusual arrangement in which county constables serve warrants for out-of-county towns and a system in Travis County courts in which defense lawyers routinely get suspects released from jail on personal bond without prosecutor input.