Baker council members rapped for travel

Two Baker residents criticized two City Council members Tuesday for charging taxpayers more than $600 to attend a Covington City Council meeting last month and one of them for billing the city for more than $1,000 about a week later for a Houston trip.

The Covington trip by council members Joyce Burges and John Givens included an overnight stay at a hotel in the St. Tammany Parish city.

Epperson Street resident John Abel, who started the discussion during the council’s regular meeting, said in a later interview he questions why the two and Burges’ husband had to spend the night to attend a Covington governmental meeting.

Abel said he often drives his wife to a morning doctor’s appointment in Covington, “and I can be back by 3 in the afternoon.”

Abel also demanded to know why Givens spent four days in Houston during the last week of June.

“What did he do for the city?” Abel asked.

“I don’t want to comment on it,” Givens replied. “I don’t have to report to you.”

“Why did the city pay the man if he can’t tell us?” Abel said.

The June 18-19 visit to Covington and Givens’ June 26-30 Houston stay came while the Baker City Council was holding a series of meetings to cut the city’s budget and avoid a crippling deficit this fiscal year.

The budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30 included $1,500 for each council members’ travel during the year, and the new budget retains that amount.

Resident Doug Pennington said Baker needs an ordinance setting out strict guidelines for city officials’ travel, and Mayor Harold Rideau said he plans to work on one because of the June travel.

Pennington said citizens need to know how an official’s travel benefits the city.

“That’s our money, and we need to know in a timely manner,” he said.

“I didn’t take a trip for nothing. It had something to do with the city of Baker,” Givens replied, adding he talked to “some people” about economic development while in Houston.

Burges said her Covington trip was public knowledge before she and Givens attended the meeting.

She said the purpose of the meeting was to “form a relationship” with the Covington council and see how the city handled its economic growth.

The city of Baker pays mileage based on the current Internal Revenue Service rate for business travel, 56.5 cents per mile.

Burges charged the city $118.09 for 209 miles she said she put on her personal vehicle.

Givens did not submit mileage for the Covington trip, but collected $315 for the Houston trip, according to city records.

While in Covington, Givens and Burges each collected $120 in “per diem” for meals, or $60 per day.

Givens received $240 for his Houston per diem, and his rooms at two Marriott hotels in Houston cost the city $510.12, according to the records.

The City Council hiked the per diem rate from $45 to $60 in 2009.

Rideau said the ordinance does not require the council members to furnish receipts for their meals and other expenses.

Councilman Pete Heine said he exceeded his $1,500 travel budget during the last fiscal year because he is on the Louisiana Municipal Association’s board of directors and had to attend an extra day during its annual convention.

When he was informed that he exceed the established amount by $183, he said he came to the city treasurer’s office “and wrote her a check.”