Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Wasteful ways


OUR OPINION: North Miami needs to tighten up its reimbursement policies

It’s so much easier to spend when it’s other people’s money, isn’t it? Even easier when the rules say that you can. In the city of North Miami, Police Chief Marc Elias has made seven trips to Haiti since April 2012 — and charged the city a total of $14,000 for his flights, meals and lodging. The reasons for trips appeared to pass muster as “city business.”

According to city documents, Chief Elias provided security to Mayor Lucie Tondreau — who was on a private vacation, no less — to attend a swearing-in ceremony for Haiti’s national police chief and to attend the 18th anniversary celebration for the police force. And because the chief provided all the proper documentation, the city reimbursed him for almost all of his expenses. However, he will reimburse North Miami about $3,000 for a trip in August that, City Manager Steve Johnson says, was not properly documented.

And the return to city residents for the police chief’s frequent flying? “Goodwill,” the city manager told the Miami Herald recently. That’s a stretch, especially because the chief’s stated purpose for at least one trip just doesn’t jibe with what Haitian police officials, and even the U.S. government, say.

Chief Elias says that a two-week trip to Haiti in August not only was to provide security to the vacationing mayor, but to also teach Haitian police about community policing. The first is a nonstarter. Either the mayor should pay for her own security on a personal vacation or she should relax someplace where she feels safe. This should not be taxpayers’ burden to bear. As for the second, municipalities and countries share knowledge all the time, and there’s a lot of goodwill to be gained. And in the case of North Miami, with a large Haitian and Haitian-American population, Mr. Johnson makes a legitimate point: If a suspect were to flee to Haiti to elude arrest, it’s worth having ties to Haitian authorities to help nab him.

Problem is, Haitian police officials and the U.S. government, working to strengthen the Haiti National Police, said that North Miami is not among the law enforcement agencies involved. In fact, only the New York City police are taking part in the U.S. State Department program. In June 2012, Chief Elias went to Haiti to assess the National Police’s recruitment efforts. This was at the invitation of the State Department, which reimbursed North Miami the $1,818 cost associated with the trip.

The city manager, Chief Elias’ boss, told the Herald in October that he had not “asked for any backup information” from the chief, didn’t know the details and planned to inquire. Two calls from the Editorial Board to the manager this week for an update went unreturned. Nevertheless, Mr. Johnson needs to use a tougher standard to determine what’s city business and what is not.

Clearly, North Miami, not a wealthy city by a long shot, needs to be a better steward of public funds. The money to reimburse the chief came from the Law Enforcement Trust Fund, money seized from criminals and usually used for crime prevention and training.

This is the same city that does not require its employees to submit receipts for their meals. The city uses the maximum rate for meals allowed by the U.S. government for federal employees. This means that even if North Miami workers spend less than the amount outlined by the federal government, the city will reimburse them the full amount. This is irresponsible, and the policy should be scrapped immediately, along with any other that plays fast and loose with money that the city can’t afford to waste.

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