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Tom White’s FAST travels on tax dollars
BY MARY BETH MCDONALD - COLUMNIST (Week of March 12, 2009)

Even though he is no longer Mayor of Vero Beach, Tom White is still awarding himself trips at city expense – most recently to Washington DC to attend the meeting of a committee of which he is not a member – with no need to seek advance City Council approval.

At a time of declining revenue when the City is struggling to maintain essential services, and the public is cutting back on travel, the failure of the City Council to establish a policy that would prevent individual members from traveling whenever they want, wherever they want, at taxpayer expense remains a mystery.

The most recent abuse of this lack of controls was Vice-Mayor White’s trip to Washington, DC from Feb. 23rd through Feb. 26th, where he flew up and stayed in the four-star Hotel George on Capitol Hill for three nights.

White’s explanation: “I had to go to Washington because I had to attend the Federal Action Strike Team meeting.” This is a group of members of the Florida League of Cities that lobbies the federal government.

But White, according to Meredith Brock, one of the administrators for FAST, is “not a member of the FAST committee. He would not be required to attend since even the City of Vero Beach is not a member of FAST.”

Brock noted that no one is precluded from attending a FAST meeting, but declined to speculate on why anyone would want to fly to Washington DC to attend a meeting if he was not one of the 26 members of the committee.

White did not respond to repeated phone requests for more information regarding his trip to Washington.

Mayor Sabe Abell said he didn’t attend the FAST meeting because since White was a member of the committee, he let him represent Vero Beach. When told that the Vice Mayor was actually not a member, Abell expressed surprise. “I didn’t know that. I assumed that he was. I don’t know whether it was of benefit to the city residents or not. ”

The Vero Beach City Council did not direct or publicly approve White’s trip to Washington – or any of his previous travels over the years – simply because no statute requires it.

State statutes provide formal, stringent requirements for travel by state officials, including written prior authorization. But City Clerk Tammy Vock says: ”The City Council has no set rules or specific procedures that they are required to follow.”

As was the case this time, White simply turns in cash receipts for such items as plane fare, tolls, parking, and cab rides – for which the city reimburses him by check – and uses a charge card for hotel bills and meals. These expenditures presumably will be available in April.

City Attorney Charles Vitunac said the City Council charter outlines general guidelines for Council travel in Section 2-459, providing that council members’ expenses do not require review. Expenses that are just, reasonable, and customary using the “rule of common sense” should be the prevailing rationale.

The City’s financial records show that White continues to be the heaviest user of the Council’s $16,000 annual travel budget and is the only member of the Council who travels outside the State on a regular basis.

Last Fall, White – who had already been a Council member for more than a decade – treated himself to a training conference at a resort in Oregon which set taxpayers’ back approximately $1,200.

Most Council members as well as the public were not aware of the trip to Oregon, since minutes of meetings from October through the present show White never mentioned the trip or what value to the city was derived from visit to the Pacific Northwest.

“I didn’t know about the trip to Oregon or where other Council members go unless they talk about it during a meeting,” said Council member Debra Fromang. “I would like to see a complete report on what exactly he was doing in Washington DC, though. These are tough times.”

“Nobody knows where anybody goes or what they’re doing,” said former Council member Ken Daige. “I always gave a written report.”

The newest City Council member, Kevin Sawnick, said: “Personally, I don’t spend one dime of taxpayer money unless I am 100 percent certain that it will benefit the residents of Vero Beach.”

But even in tough economic times, no member of the City Council appears to want to take the lead in enacting a requirement that travel at the taxpayers’ expense be approved in advance.

“All travel should be discussed in advance as to how it will benefit the City and then approved by Council members,” said Paul Teresi, President of the Indian River County Taxpayers Association. “Not doing so is ludicrous.”