Kennesaw’s elected officials have been wining, dining, dressing and traveling at the expense of the city’s taxpayers, racking up thousands of dollars in purchases on city credit cards during the last two years.
After being sworn into office, council members and the mayor are each given a city credit card, which they use when traveling, dining out on city business and purchasing items for their office duties.
“There is no formal ‘policy’ regarding the use of credit cards for the mayor and council,” said Mayor Mark Mathews. Nor does the city have any documented limits for spending, he said.
The only guidelines for spending are found in the city charter, Section 2.09, which reads: “Each council member and the mayor, when authorized by the mayor and council and upon presentation of itemized vouchers, shall receive their actual and necessary expenses incurred in the performance of their duties of office.”
The mayor and council members can use their city-issued credit cards on whatever they deem “reasonable,” according to at least three council members, and the city’s residents will foot the bill.
Between December 2012 and September 2013, Mathews spent more than $8,000 on restaurant tabs, flights to conventions and events across the country, iPad accessories and memorabilia for city residents.
Last month, the mayor charged $1,835 for lapel pins, which he called “Challenge Coins.” The coins were distributed to the players on Kennesaw Mountain High School and North Cobb High School’s football teams. The intent was to provide something tangible for the athletes to remember their first time playing at Kennesaw State University, he said.
He had proposed the idea at a council meeting before he ordered the coins, he said, and sent out an email the day he ordered them, and heard nothing negative from council members, so he went ahead and placed the order.
There is no state law or policy dealing with credit cards for city mayors or council members, said Rusi Patel, an associate attorney for the Georgia Municipal Association.
There are more than 500 cities in the state, Patel said, though he could not estimate how many issue city credit cards for elected officials, as cities are not required to report credit card information to the state.
Georgia law prohibits cities from filing for bankruptcy, Patel said, and city credit cards, “can’t be limitless,” or cities would have difficulties balancing their budgets.
How other Cobb cities handle credit cards
Neighboring Cobb County cities don’t have the same spending policies as Kennesaw.
The mayor and council members of Marietta do not have city-issued credit cards, said city spokeswoman Lindsay Thompson.
Acworth has cards available, but they must be requested by the elected official before each potential use.
“I don’t have a credit card,” said Acworth Mayor Tommy Allegood.
Acworth has budgeted $5,000 annually for the city’s aldermen and Allegood’s business expenses, but to use the money the elected officials need to request the use of a city credit card.
“To my knowledge, nobody carries any credit cards,” Allegood said.
When Cris Welsh took office as a councilwoman in Kennesaw, she said she was handed a city credit card and was told to keep her receipts, and that she would be reimbursed for any “reasonable and necessary expenses.”
“I would hope that people would treat the city card like it is their own money,” she said of the council members, noting city employees do not have the privilege to use city credit cards like the elected officials.
Between December 2012 and Sept. 9, 2013, Welsh spent $2,948 with her city credit card, according to the monthly statements obtained by MDJ. Welsh, as well as many of her fellow council members, has racked up individual restaurant tabs of more than $100. There have also been multiple Monday-morning breakfast expenses of $25 each at the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, and $15 expenses at monthly Kennesaw Business Association meetings.
Councilman Bruce Jenkins has spent more than $6,500 using his city credit card since January of this year, according to the statements, the highest amount among the five council members.
The mayor and other council members have spent hundreds of dollars within the past year at Cobb Chamber meetings, often a charge that is put through in advance by city Clerk Debra Taylor, said Councilman Jeff Duckett.
These include gatherings of the Leadership Cobb Alumni Association, the Honorary Commanders Association of Cobb County and the Atlanta Regional Leadership Institute, said Mathews, who is a member of each of these groups.
The city credit card comes in handy, Mathews said, when he brings business people and other Cobb County and Atlanta officials to Kennesaw and treats them to lunch, although he has his own system for turning in receipts and making sure the city’s money is being spent wisely.
For example, when the mayor visits hotels and pays for a room upgrade, or flies to conferences and pays to park, sometimes he doesn’t “go through the formality,” of documenting all of what needs to be reimbursed by the city, he said.
Instead, the mayor credits back large meals, like the $923 tab at Vic’s on the River in Savannah from July 2012, which was paid back to the city within the week. He said he doesn’t bother to keep track of every single cent he spends while out on city business.
“It would be a waste of time to document reimbursements,” he said, although it might look bad to “the idiots that like to look at the nickels and dimes stuff.”
Mathews said he can assure city residents he is honest with the city credit card.
Traveling on city business
Council members and the mayor take trips a handful of times each year on city business, said Mathews.
“The mayor and council have a budget line that covers professional development and typically includes one or maybe two training opportunities, on average, per year,” said Davis, the city spokeswoman.
Traveling to the annual Georgia Municipal Association Convention, a performance of Kennesaw’s Little General Cloggers in Nashville and the National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., are just a few of Mathews’ duties as mayor, as he travels for work maybe four times a year, he said.
Sometimes council members travel with Mathews to these events, as councilman Tim Killingsworth did last June to a performance of the city’s Little Cloggers dance troupe at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and Jenkins and Duckett did in January to the National League of Cities conference.
Before Kennesaw officials depart, hotel and flight reservations are planned and coordinated by the city clerk. They often do not have control over where they stay and what flights they get on, although the clerk usually books the conference hotel if available, said Davis.
When council members travel on city business, as Duckett and Mathews did in January 2013, they bring the city credit cards with them, Duckett said, and use them for travel-related expenses such as taxis, hotel reservations, meals and conference fees.
Where, when and how much council members spend with their credit cards varies with each situation, they said, although Welsh reiterated that “We don’t have a travel and expenditure policy at all.”
Off to the annual GMA convention
The Georgia Municipal Association holds an annual five-day convention, which elected officials across the state are encouraged to attend, listen to reports from fellow government leaders, go to lectures and leadership classes, and spend time honing their leadership skills.
Kennesaw council members are encouraged each year to attend, and often bring their families with them, said Duckett. Council members traditionally stay in the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf and Spa Hotel, where rooms run from $179 to $599 a night. While the council members are not in the conference, they have the chance to hang out in the hostess city of the South and enjoy the spa, golf course and private beach access offered by the hotel.
In June 2012, the mayor and council members each spent more than $1,000 to stay at the Westin in Savannah, and each spent hundreds of dollars on meals around the city, according to credit card statements.
“If the conference includes activities for spouses then the city would pick up the expenses,” Mathews said.
But now, he added, he does not use the city credit card for any family expenses.
Killingsworth said the same.
“Not just for Savannah but all of the time, I typically do not use the city card for any family member unless they are in a role to promote the city’s best interest at that time,” he said.
The spouses of the city officials often stay in the same rooms as the council members and mayor, Killingsworth said, but extra rooms for children are often paid for out of pocket, he thought.
Bruce Jenkins and Cris Welsh did not stay at the Westin. They stayed at the Best Western and the Hampton Inn, respectively, across the river, they said.
Welsh was a speaker at the GMA, so her hotel was paid for by the GMA, and Bruce Jenkins stayed at the Best Western, for about $640, according to a June credit card statement.
The city of Acworth has not attended the GMA convention in the last four years, said Mayor Allegood, because of the dip in the economy. Acworth budgeted $5,000 last year for expenses related to out-of-town council trainings, he said.
In Kennesaw, the mayor and council spent $5,000 at one event last year, the GMA annual conference. For the first nine months of this year, they have charged a little more than $23,000 on city credit cards for meals, hotel stays and other items.
“It’s just something that you need to apply common sense to, and we have looked at it many times over the years,” Mathews said of using the city credit cards.
Meals on the taxpayers’ dime
Council members, like the mayor, often meet with business owners and nearby elected officials, they said, and many of them racked up hundreds of dollars in the past year in meals, over which city business was discussed.
Jenkins, while on a trip to Washington, D.C., last March, spent more than $1,000 in meals, flight and hotel expenses, including a $25 trip to the popular frozen yogurt shop Pinkberry in Georgetown, and a $30 charge at the National Cathedral Gift Shop, where Jenkins said he bought a guidebook.
Jenkins said he hopes to use the book to teach Kennesaw Youth Council members about the cathedral, if he ever brings them on a trip to the nation’s Capitol.
There is currently no trip planned to bring members of the city’s Youth Council to Washington, Jenkins said.
Jenkins said he has increased the amount of meetings he has been holding in the months since former council member Bill Thrash died, which explains multiple trips to McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, CVS, Cracker Barrel and Kroger in the last few months.
“To my knowledge there has never been an expense that was unjustified in any of the expenses we have all spent,” Jenkins said, although he admitted he hoped the city would move toward adopting a per diem policy for the city credit cards.
The council and the mayor traditionally spend one night a year eating out together with their spouses and children, Mathews said. The celebration began before Mathews took office, and gives the council members and their families a chance to bond and build as a team, Killingsworth said.
Former Mayor Leonard Church remembers using his city-issued credit card, for which there were no written policies, to treat the Kennesaw council members at the GMA conference in Savannah, he said.
When Mathews assumed office he continued that tradition.
“Most council members as well as myself typically only cover spouse and possible family expenses if we are doing something as a group. Such as what used to be the ‘Mayor’s Dinner.’” Mathews said.
The most recent supper was at Vic’s on the River in Savannah on June 22, 2012, a meal that cost $923.20, charged by Mathews on a city credit card, but credited back to the city by the mayor in the beginning of July, according to the credit card statement.
Candidates weigh in
When James Sebastian, who is running against Duckett for the Post 5 council seat, filed a public records request on the city council members’ credit card expenditures, it was hard to determine why certain receipts were included, he said, as there was no notation of who attended meetings or meals, or why the meals needed to be paid for by taxpayers.
“Rather than having a credit card and the city footing the bill, we would make individuals pay the bills and the city would reimburse them afterward,” Sebastian said.
Debra Williams, who is running for Kennesaw City Council Post 4 against Matt Riedemann, made it clear she did not agree with the current lack of a policy on credit card use.
“I do not feel our elected officials have proven themselves responsible enough to carry the city credit card on their persons at all times,” she said.
Williams said she would like to see the policy changed to require the mayor and council to “check out” a credit card from city hall before they leave for out-of-town business meetings. When taking people to lunch locally, Williams said she thinks elected officials should have to turn in receipts in order to later be reimbursed, instead of paying upfront with the card.
“When there is no accountability, there is no responsibility,” said Briggett Washington, who is running for council Post 3 against Church and Jenkins. Washington believes there should be receipts kept for every single purchase made with the city credit cards, and rules put in place to designate specific places where council members can spend city money.
Some see no need for policy change
Still, the idea of implementing a credit card spending policy doesn’t seem necessary, said Church, the former mayor who is now running for Jenkins’ seat on the council.
“We are all grown-ups here,” he said. “It is not the card’s fault, it is the one using it.”
A per diem policy, Killingsworth said, would end up wasting taxpayer money.
“A per diem would be wasteful for the taxpayers, as it would pay you for three meals a day (whether used or not). If you look at my statements, you won’t be able to find me using the card to pay for three meals a day,” he said, whether in Kennesaw or out of town.
Duckett has spent roughly $4,500, Jenkins, $6,500, Welsh and Killingsworth almost $3,000 each, and the mayor about $8,200 from December 2012 through Sept. 9, 2013. Since taking office after former councilman Bill Thrash’s death in May, Riedemann has spent just more than $200 with his city credit card.