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Travel Overspending Stirs Heated Council Debate

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By Jorge Casuso

July 26, 2023 -- Councilmember Phil Brock's over-budget travel spending triggered a heated debate at Tuesday night's Council meeting that devolved into personal and political attacks.

Brock, along with Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, were seeking to bridge their travel deficits by using unspent funds from two former Councilmembers that had been shifted from the travel budget.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, Brock spent what is likely a record $13,029 to travel to conferences -- $4,698 above the $8,331 allocated to Councilmembers each year. De la Torre spent $1,413 above the limit.

While the debate pitted the three Councilmembers backed by Santa Monica's liberal establishment against their four political opponents, the final vote to allocate the funds was unanimous.

Councilmember Jesse Zwick said he heard from residents who were "concerned that we don't have a lot of money for programs.

"I'm also struggling a bit about what kind of message we're sending, particularly at this time of financial distress, when we can't stay within the budgets we were allotted."

Brock blamed staff for not informing him sooner that he was headed into the red and said Councilmembers should be notified on a regular basis, a policy staff has now adopted.

"I was told at the end of March that I had exceeded my year's travel budget," Brock said. "I had not been aware of that."

Councilmember Caroline Torosis quickly noted that Brock continued to travel at the City's expense after he was notified.

"It sounds like you were told," she said. "How many conferences did you attend after that?"

Torosis also noted that the travel funds former Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Council member Kristin McCowan had not spent had been placed in the Council's current discretionary fund.

Money in that fund, she said, was used last year to fund graduation expenses, trips for youth and sending students abroad.

"I think we have a pretty generous travel budget," Torosis said. "I think fiscal responsibility is pretty important."

"There's a difference between personal enrichment and benefits to the community," she said. "I'm still struggling with that trade off."

Brock shot back. "I really object to you saying something about personal enrichment and personal gain from a conference," he said.

"I've lost on every conference. My business lost over $200,000 we had made the previous year because I'm a Councilmember," Brock said. "But that's more important to me -- trying to help my fellow residents."

Brock then ticked off several dozen issues discussed at the League of Cities conference in Tacoma, Washington he attended last week that can benefit Santa Monica.

"I understand you're trying to make (travel expenses) into a campaign issue for next year and that's B.S.," he said.

Councilmember Christine Parra said that she, too, was offended.

"I also take offense," she said. "When someone is booking your flight. . . at the end of the day you don't know how much the conference costs.

"No one is giving us a heads up," Parra said. "This happens to be an oversight, miscommunication, but to politicize that, I'm not okay."

"Let's not make personal attacks on our colleagues," Mayor Gleam Davis cautioned.

"It seemed like a very personal attack on Phil and Oscar," Parra said, "and I'm not okay with that."

Parra accused Davis of placing an item on the June 27 agenda to shift Himmelrich and McCowan's unspent travel funds into the Council's current discretionary fund "because you knew Brock and de la Torre were over."

Before the coronavirus shutdown, former Councilmember Kevin McKeown was the most prolific traveler, taking trips totaling $13,613.76 in expenses during the two fiscal years ending on June 30, 2019.

That was nearly matched in half the time by the $13,029 Brock spent during the past fiscal year.

De la Torre accused Davis, Torosis and Zwick of overblowing the issue for political gain, noting that the combined $6,111 he and Brock had overspent was part of an annual City budget totaling $745 million.

The Council, he said, has spent $15 million fighting a voting rights lawsuit filed by Latino plaintiffs and another $800,000 to try and keep de la Torre, whose wife is the lead plaintiff, from taking part in related Council discussions.

"It's hypocritical," de la Torre said. "You have $16 million spent on ego-driven legal ventures" to stay in power. "I feel it's kind of a low blow."

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