Even when Mayor Carlton Jones doesn’t show up, controversy doesn’t stop for the Tulare City Council. Only this time, it seems it was much ado about nothing.
At the meeting held September 5, Councilman Jose Sigala prompted a discussion on last year’s travel budget for members of the Council. The item, which was to be passed as part of the consent calendar, showed a deficit run by Jones amounting to some $1,600, and Sigala wanted to know what ramifications, if any, exist for the excess.
“One of the things I have seen is there is a particular deficit for it one of the districts,” Sigala said, “and I wanted to find out what kind of processes were in place to cover that.”
The deficit was in Jones’s District 3, and Sigala was told the gap would be covered using the unused portions of the four remaining members’ budgets, none of whom spent their entire allotment.
“So, as a council member, if I know I have a certain amount of travel budget, I can go over it because I would probably be safe that the rest of my council members will cover my deficit, is that what I’m hearing?” Sigala asked.
Deficits Not Encouraged
It was what Sigala had heard, City Manager Joe Carlini confirmed.
“We would not encourage that,” he said. “However, how the budget works is if any individual line item goes over, as long as the entire budget doesn’t go over, we kind of step back.”
That answer led Sigala to express concern for the lack of consequences.
“So, there’s no policy, though. It’s an honor system,” he said. “So, basically, we’re told we have X amount of money for travel for the year, and you work hard to stay within that budget, but if you don’t, obviously there’s no consequence, you get covered nonetheless.”
The city attorney, Sigala was told, is reformulating the policy, and it will be up to the Council to decide what the consequence of running over budget should be.
“I want to be as transparent as possible,” Sigala said. “You know, these are taxpayer dollars, and we use them for things like travel and things like that, so I wanted to make sure the public kind of understood what we were discussing.”
More to the Story
It turns out Sigala didn’t have all the facts about Jones’s travel or his budget, and Jones wasn’t there to explain.
That prompted Vice Mayor Maritsa Castellanoz to attempt to table the item “in fairness” to Jones and Councilman David Macedo, who was also absent.
Sigala wanted to press on.
“I disagree,” he said. “I made the effort to come to this council meeting. I know it’s on the books. I’m here. We have a quorum. We have an official council meeting. Unless the city attorney opines differently, this is an issue we can discuss.”
But there were a couple of surprises in store.
After Sigala asked about the nature of Jones’s travel deficit, it was discovered an accounting mistake had been made.
While Jones went over his budget by $1,231, there was another $400 expense that should have been charged to his account — the amount Jones gave Tulare Emergency Aid to cover utility bills.
It then became clear the deficit in Jones’s travel budget only occurred because of a trip he took to represent the city in Washington, D.C., and he paid for part of that trip himself.
“Not only did (Jones) spend what was left in his budget, he pulled $3,000 of his own personal funds to go on the trip on behalf of the city,” said Councilman Greg Nunley.
Nunley then pointed out the travel budget for the current fiscal year had been doubled for just that reason.
“This is why we upped the amount that each council member gets, so we can cover trips,” he said. “The mayor is usually going to travel more than anybody.”
Sigala then suggested the travel budget for the mayor be enlarged even further. The Council will address travel budgets again at a future meeting, once the city attorney has completed her research and made her recommendations.
Confusion on Committees
Despite that setback, Sigala pushed back again when Castellanoz asked to table another item from the evening’s agenda, appointments to the city’s Measure I Oversight Committee, due to the absence of Jones and Macedo.
Measure I, a voter-approved one-half percent sales tax, provides funds for city services and maintenance.
The tax has been collected and spent since April of 2006, yet the oversight committee tasked with reviewing audits of the Measure I funds has never been seated.
“Measure I (Oversight Committee) is way long overdue in terms of actually doing its work,” Sigala said. “This was passed back in 2006, and 11 years later, we still don’t have a committee.”
The lack of a similar committee to oversee spending of voter-approved bond funds at the Tulare Local Heath Care District has erupted into an ever-widening controversy surrounding its still incomplete upgrade and expansion.
Measure I Oversight Finally Starts
Five seats are available on the Measure I Oversight Committee, and just six applicants responded to City Hall’s request for willing participants.
Several of them were in attendance at the September 5 Council meeting.
While Castellanoz attempted to table the appointments until Jones and Macedo were present, Sigala pushed on, hard.
“What I’d like to do is make my appointment, and you can vote on it, and then we’ll wait until the other (council members) decide to show up on a Council night, and do that,” Sigala said. “I have my appointments, so I don’t think it’s fair for someone to come out tonight (and not have the matter addressed).”
His reasoning seemed to give vent to his frustration over his missing colleagues.
“It’s been agendized, and maybe on a future agenda we’ll put that the council members aren’t going to be there, so maybe you don’t want to show up to the meeting, but other than that, they can’t figure out if someone’s going to be here or not,” Sigala said.
Eventually, two commissioners were appointed to oversee Measure I spending.
Taking the seats are Richard Dituri and Dawn Rowsey. Three other commissioners will be appointed at a future meeting.
The next meeting of the Tulare City Council is scheduled for 7pm on Tuesday, October 3, at the Tulare City Library, 491 North M Street.