North Miami Beach officials can no longer receive city-paid travel expenses to Haiti or anyplace else unless there is a “ valid and identifiable” benefit for the city’s taxpayers. In a resolution unanimously approved by the City Council on April 21, the new policy allows travel reimbursements for official expenses that have a “ proven public purpose.”
Last year, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust recommended that the city make a stronger policy for travel reimbursements after controversy surfaced about a trip to Haiti by Councilman Frantz Pierre. Pierre was reimbursed $777 for travel expenses.
In the commission’s investigative report, Pierre stated he attended a leadership conference in Haiti to present a talk about the differences between the U.S. and Haiti’s forms of government. Even though Pierre’s trip was approved by the city manager, the commission found there was no proof that the trip was beneficial to taxpayers.
Vice Mayor Marlen Martell, who was the force behind getting the resolution adopted, said residents need to be comfortable with how the council is using tax dollars.
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“ I feel that putting forth this resolution and getting it adopted would safeguard all of us up here and make it again a transparency to our residents,” Martell said.
The new policy would permit reimbursements for officials attending traditional city functions with the Chamber of Commerce, League of Cities, public pension seminars and a variety of other events listed in the resolution. The city attorney and the Commission on Ethics were designated as the “gatekeepers” for deciding which events not on the predetermined list would be an exception.
Councilwoman Beth Spiegel said she preferred to have City Attorney Jose Smith “out of the mix.”
“Part of the reason this all started, a year or more ago was to take the city manager out of the position of having to approve” trips, Spiegel said. “City manager, city attorneys are both charter officers and they both answer to seven bosses, and they both can be pressured,” she said
Smith acknowledged that the new rule puts him in the “hot seat” but said his call “insulates all of you from any liability.”
“The ethics commission expects the city attorney to be that referee, that judge to guide you to make these very tough decisions when there is a gray area,” Smith said.. “So what I’m telling you, I don’t think you have any choice, and I don’t think I have any choice. I’ve got to be the referee who decides based on the cases, based on your resolution and the direction you are giving us. I’ve got to make that call as to whether or not you make that trip.”
Follow Patricia Sagastume on Twitter @patsagastume
The 2015 Municipal Elections will be 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 5. A list of the precinct sites is listed on the City of North Miami Beach website.