Travel budget eliminated for Victorville council members
VICTORVILLE — Elected officials have rescinded travel expense allotments for council members, choosing instead to leave reimbursement requests up to the Council for approval on an individual basis.
The 4-1 decision came on the heels of scrutiny raised by the majority body over Councilwoman Blanca Gomez’s spending, which some officials believed was disproportionate to other electeds.
“I think it’s a good idea to eliminate this travel budget, which I believe is being used in a very unbalanced way,” Councilman Jim Kennedy said during the May 1 meeting, “and I think individual travel decisions by council members ought to be approved by the Council.”
Gomez has been reimbursed this fiscal year $4,390.74 for attendance at a series of events, three hotel stays and two airplane flights, while the others had combined reimbursements of $2,491.17 over the same period, city records show.
Kennedy was the only councilor who had not submitted any travel expenses.
The Council’s decision — with only Gomez dissenting — undoes a travel budget policy in place since 1993. It permitted a $1,200 individual allotment, $5,000 group pool and a separate fund for travel to a League of California Cities conference.
It also scraps a recent policy that the city manager must OK such expenses — an extra control that had been added following an internal city audit which officials said was spurred by the frequency of Gomez’s travel requests.
Gomez viewed the move as much ado about nothing, or another in a succession of instances where fellow electeds have singled her out. That me-against-the-world sentiment, however, has grown thin among her colleagues.
“This is an embarrassment to our city to have this issue in the newspaper,” Councilman Eric Negrete said.
Gomez’s spending did not appear to reflect anything unusual, and she sees it as reflective of her level of engagement, noting that the elected role should be a full-time job. In doing so, she has also stepped up her call to rally would-be office seekers, who share her view of the responsibility of the seat, to supplant the incumbents in Victorville.
She also suggested it was ironic that a travel budget was being eliminated in favor of Council oversight during the same meeting when elected officials approved raising the city manager’s purchasing authority from $25,000 to $50,000.
“To me, if you start looking at the hypocrisy, it’s very explicit,” Gomez said. “And if you haven’t noticed it, start picking it up — since day one of my councilship in this position.”
Almost immediately after winning election in November 2016, Gomez and her colleagues — particularly Negrete and Mayor Gloria Garcia — have publicly butted heads, and Gomez has seemed to rotate between launching personal attacks and extending an olive branch.
Comments she made in short succession during the May 1 meeting could be viewed as one example, as she questioned whether health care coverage in perpetuity had been provided to a former elected official.
“I know I’m a threat to you guys, I get it,” she said. Then, later, she said: “I don’t think I’m a threat to anybody.”
Meanwhile, city officials have struggled over whether to vocalize their displeasure or to keep quiet, concluding that the first strategy might ratchet up tensions and the other could work only to embolden her.
“This bizarre behavior, this unhinged, mentally unstable behavior, is not something that we witness once in a while, it’s — let me be clear — every single event, meeting, in public, not in public, whatever,” Negrete pleaded to a crowd in council chambers.
Gomez countered that such an attack embodied “a lack of teamship” and showed Negrete’s “true colors.” She vowed to continue efforts to be the voice of the electorate: “Those are the people that I’m protecting and striving to continue to represent.”
But Gomez also possesses the rare distinction of being the direct cause of policy shifts. Those include the travel expense elimination and a five-minute time limit on public speaking during meetings.
Following a closed-door meeting March 20 where Negrete and Garcia both claimed they felt physically threatened by Gomez, the councilwoman offered an impromptu tour of City Hall offices to members of the public.
Since then, the city has installed signage to restrict public access and uninvited guests from entering working space areas, according to a memo sent not long after to city officials by City Manager Keith Metzler.
The memo, obtained by the Daily Press, also described city employees inside City Hall at the time of the tour as reporting they felt “frightened,” “tense” and “on edge.”
Shea Johnson may be reached at 760-955-5368 or SJohnson@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DP_Shea.