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Hartford City Council Member's Travel Expenses Criticized

Hartford Fiscal crisis

JEFFREY B. COHEN

November 11, 2008

Following layoffs and faced with an $8 million deficit that threatens to grow, Hartford council Majority Leader rJo Winch is in Orlando, Fla., attending a conference at the city's expense this week and some of her council colleagues are calling her on it.

Winch is in Florida for a meeting of the National League of Cities and it's at least her fourth such trip since the summer of 2007. And while many on the council say there could be a benefit to such meetings, they also say now on the heels of layoffs, and with fears of cuts in services is not the time to prove it.

"Some would argue that rJo has come back a better public servant for participating," said Working Families city Councilman Luis Cotto, who said he has traveled twice as a councilman on trips that were paid for by outside sources. But, Cotto said, "in a time when we, the council, are asking the departments to tighten their belts and to do double-sided copies and not leave their cars idling, little things, we should practice what we preach."

Records provided by the city show the conference Winch is attending will cost $1,205, her airfare cost $286, and her hotel costs could total $1,230. She is also traveling with three members of a city youth council, two of whom had their travel paid for by the city, she said.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez recently imposed a travel ban on city employees, but it doesn't apply to the council.

Winch says it's unfair to discuss her travel costs in the context of the city's fiscal crisis. She is a regional leader of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and to miss the national meetings would make her leadership role pointless, she said before she left town.

Winch apparently booked her flight in early August.

Council President Calixto Torres defended Winch, saying that her travel "is not a big deal" because council members including him historically have had their relevant travel paid for by the city. Plus, the city only learned of its financial troubles recently, he said.

"Travel going forward is a whole different ballgame," Torres said, adding that he has decided to reduce the council's annual budget for such things from roughly $40,000 to about $10,000.

City Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, recently at odds with his Democratic leadership, said that Winch travels too much. He questions both the timing and the benefit of Winch's travel. "I think it just shows a disrespect for city workers that you've got people who have lost their jobs, yet we keep conducting business as usual," Kennedy said. "It shows a lack of understanding of the fiscal crisis we're in and a lack of understanding of our role as city leaders."

Winch and Torres aren't the only officials to have travel expenses paid by the city. Councilman Pedro Segarra, chairman of the council's budget committee, went to Puerto Rico last May at a cost to the city of roughly $1,000, Segarra said.

That was before the city administration made clear in early September the dire status of city finances, he said. "I personally would not even think of doing it [now], given the city's financial situation," Segarra said. "I feel sort of bad now because I now know what I didn't know back in May when I took the trip."

Democratic Councilman Matt Ritter said the city needs to prioritize travel on a case-by-case basis and suggested an emphasis on in-state trips only. Larry Deutsch, Working Families Party councilman and minority leader, said conferences can pay off, but so can teleconferencing.

Municipal union leader Clarke King was not pleased.

"It's ridiculous, with the financial difficulties that we have that the council seems to spend as they choose to," King said. "They don't care."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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