Baton Rouge Metro Council have different views on an appropriate amount of publicly funded travel in the wake of a report in The Advocate this week detailing City Court Judge Yvette Alexander’s $2,900 trip to Morocco.
Councilman Ryan Heck questioned the propriety of Alexander’s trips to exotic locales for legal conferences, adding that he thinks the council should look at potentially shrinking the judge’s travel budget in the next budget cycle.
“I think there’s a time and a place for international travel,” he said. “But this is a taxpayer-funded boondoggle.”
Heck said while is reasonable for judges to attend conferences within the state or the U.S. to satisfy continuing educational requirements, international travel is questionable.
In fact, while Alexander is in Morocco next week for the National Bar Association’s mid-winter meeting, two other city court judges, Laura Prosser and Alex “Brick” Wall, are attending a conference in New Orleans for city, family and juvenile judges.
The conference is for training on domestic violence cases.
Courses for the New Orleans conference range from the “Impact of Violence on Adult Victims” to “Legal Ethics and the Media.”
Neither Alexander, nor the National Bar Association, responded to requests for the course agenda for the conference in Morocco. However, a spokesperson from the National Bar Association said in an email this week that the conference would be focused on judicial reforms.
Councilman Joel Boé said he thinks international travel could be justifiable in some cases, but added that those instances are “few and far between.”
“This simply appears to be, on the surface, an abuse of tax payer dollars,” he said. “These trips she’s going on seem to be completely irresponsible regarding tax dollars.”
Boé said he thinks the Metro Council should consider putting more stringent guidelines on travel, such as limiting the number of international trips per year, or requiring reports from people returning from trips to share what they learned from the conferences.
Some other council members said they saw no problem with Alexander’s travel.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel said Alexander can’t be judged for spending money allocated to her travel budget. The five city court judges share an allocated travel budget of $49,000 per year.
“If we’re budgeting the money for city court judges, and they take trips within an allowable amount, then we can’t say anything is inappropriate,” Banks-Daniel said. “I wish we (the council) had such a luxurious and generous travel allowance, but seldom at this level are we allowed to travel.”
Banks-Daniel also said she did not think there was any reason to consider cutting the travel budget because “traveling is expensive,” and Alexander isn’t the one who makes the decision about where the conferences are located.
“That’s an opportunity for her to grow in her profession,” Banks-Daniel said. “I don’t think we should single out any particular judge or profession to curtail it because it is expensive to travel.”
Councilwoman Tara Wicker said it’s important for Baton Rouge officials to continue their education and “get out of the box.”
“We in Baton Rouge are so used to doing business as usual,” Wicker said. “Sometimes we get locked into the same thing, and there’s a benefit to going out and bringing those thoughts and ideas home.”
Wicker also noted that Alexander is a chairperson within the National Bar Association, so she is expected to attend the various conferences.
“I don’t think it’s excessive if it fits the context of her doing her job,” she said.
Alexander took 37 trips from 2007-2012 at a cost to taxpayers of $52,704 in public funds. Her travels included two trips to Hawaii, two trips to Jamaica, and visits to Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, the Virgin Islands and the West Indies.
In 2002, she took a trip to Italy spending $1,900.
In 2012, the Metro Council approved and then quickly rescinded an ordinance that would have limited city-parish employees and board members from traveling outside the 48 contiguous states without a waiver from the council.
The measure was initially a response to what was seen as excessive travel by a Metro Airport commissioner’s designee who was taking several trips. The council reversed course after receiving several complaints from employees about already budgeted travel.