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Summer travel: Is League of Cities confab worth cost?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of August 18, 2011)

When four Vero Beach City Council members and new City Manager Jim O’Connor headed off to Orlando last week to attend the 2011 Florida League of Cities Conference, we decided to seek answers to the perennial question:  “What do our city officials actually do at these things?”

It costs taxpayers about $1,000 for each elected official or employee who attends this annual meeting.  Registration for the conference itself is $325 and rooms at the Marriott World Center Hotel – where this year’s meeting was taking place -- were $153 per night. Add in mileage, parking, tolls and meals, and the total for five quickly comes to about $5,000.

So Vero Beach 32963 decided to find out what goes on at one of these conferences.  Are taxpayers getting good value for their $5,000, or is this primarily a fun summer outing?  Interestingly, we turned out to be the only media organization that sent a reporter to the meetings.

Vero Beach officials and council members have been criticized in the past for jumping on any chance to travel on the city's dime, and trips in previous years took former council members to lavish out-of-state resorts for events that could only be viewed as primarily an expense-paid holiday of negligible value to the city.

Those days seem over, however, at least for the moment.  The annual Florida League of Cities meeting seems a bit of a different matter from some of those junkets.  That’s not to say there are not a lot of opportunities to be wined and dined at posh restaurants in the evenings.  But there also are a lot of mind-numbing conferences and workshops to attend during the day.

When it comes to the Florida League of Cities conference at least, what officials get out of it would seem to depend to a great extent on what they put into it.

If local officials make an effort to talk to as many officials from other communities as possible, put in the long days in meetings, listen carefully to the speakers, ask lots of question,  they probably return to their municipalities slightly better equipped to govern – and it’s probably worth the $1,000 to send them there.

Though the degree of participation of Vero officials in the conference varied from individual to individual, overall our local officials at this particular meeting seemed to be doing a pretty good job of trying to glean value from the trip for the taxpayers.

Council member Brian Heady attended nearly every workshop or meeting offered in every time slot, with topics varying from pensions to disaster recovery to budgeting to economic development.

"I think the most valuable thing about the conference is hearing solutions tried other places to problems that you also face in your own city,” he said. 

Mayor Jay Kramer and his wife Alla got there Wednesday to participate in the Florida League of Mayors meetings and sessions, which Kramer said were quite helpful, being both a new council member as well as a first-time mayor.

Vice Mayor Pilar Turner attended with an eye on learning all she could about how other cities make fiscal decisions and do financial reporting.  Councilman Craig Fletcher, who was coming back to the conference for a second round as a former mayor, was spotted a few times in the corridors.

In the evening, consultants and large companies who make money off of city contracts took carloads, vanloads and even busloads of conference attendees and spouses and guests to the best restaurants in town.

Battles for territory and customers statewide often play out as companies up the ante on recruiting and "thank-you" gatherings for officials.

This year, the battle was on between Florida civil engineering firms and other firms trying to break into the Florida market from out of state. But the waste haulers by far outdid any of the other corporate participants in the conference's extracurricular activities.

Waste Management and Waste Pro took different approaches.  Waste Management sponsored a decadent party called "Death by Chocolate" with a three-hour open bar and stations featuring every kind of chocolate imaginable in a family-friendly setting with a live band, Elvis impersonator and a bounce house for the kids inside the Marriott's main ballroom.

Waste Pro carted two busloads of officials and guests out to fancy restaurants in Orlando. Vero officials were targeted by Waste Pro because the firm has its sights on making a proposal to privatize the City of Vero Beach solid waste department.

In addition to the Vero delegation, five other Indian River County municipal officials plus Indian River Shores Town Manager Richard Jefferson and Mayor Tom Cadden attended this year’s Florida League of Cities meeting. The Town of Orchid sent no one to the conference.