On the evening of June 27, as this year’s Georgia Municipal Association convention came to a close, Mayor Robert Reichert played host to a majority of Macon’s 15-member City Council and several other guests at River Street Oyster Bar in Savannah.
“You had most of the region’s mayors and possibly some of their City Council members, too,” Councilman Virgil Watkins said. Many spouses and even a few children were there as well, council members said.
Judging by the buffet price of $22.95, three dozen people enjoyed Reichert’s hospitality.
He has held similar dinners at the convention in previous years, as did Mayors C. Jack Ellis and Jim Marshall before him, Councilman Mike Cranford said.
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Council members get $50 a day for food while traveling, apart from mileage and hotel costs. But they didn’t have to spend any of their allotment at the oyster bar, because Reichert put everything on his Bank of America city purchasing card.
City taxpayers picked up the evening’s tab of $1,695.66, according to city records obtained by The Telegraph.
That included the $469 spent on drinks: 10 Crown Royal whiskeys, nine Chivas Regal scotches, nine Tanqueray gins, five Glenlivet scotches and 25 glasses of wine.
“There’s an open bar there. That’s just part of the venue,” Councilman Larry Schlesinger said.
And that’s just as it should be, Reichert said.
“I think it is certainly defensible and an appropriate use of the mayor’s budget for hospitality,” he said Friday. “I would defend it, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Reichert said the Savannah dinner, like other pricey events he’s hosted this year, served to deepen friendship and cooperation among regional officials. “Appropriately used” alcoholic drinks are part of the necessary mix, he said.
Some travel and entertainment expense is an incidental cost inherent in government, but a review of purchasing card bills and other records show Reichert often treating himself and others to the high end of those categories: drinks, dinners, recreation and lodgings.
Two dozen Macon employees have city purchasing cards, but Reichert’s -- the only one held by an elected official -- has the highest limit by far: $20,000. Most others are limited to single purchases of $499.99. Reichert’s lacks that restriction.
His bills amount to relatively small change for a city with an annual budget above $100 million, but all city departments are under pressure to shave expenses wherever possible. Even now, he’s searching unfilled city jobs for a few thousand dollars to enforce a curfew for teenagers.
But he said his entertainment costs are dollars well spent, predicting that they will bring “big dividends” for the city.
“It is not frivolous spending. It is not wasteful spending,” Reichert said. “It is not immoral, unethical or illegal.”
Though they didn’t comment on his alcohol purchases -- of which some council members partook -- at least a couple of city councilmen expressed surprise at hearing Reichert’s entertainment and travel costs. Council President James Timley said it appears to violate both the letter and spirit of city spending rules.
Councilman Tom Ellington said he wants to take a fresh look at an itemized accounting of such spending.
“That’s something that we do periodically, but I have not done so recently,” he said.
Dues: personal or official?
When he became mayor, a job that pays about $104,000 a year, Reichert already was a member of Idle Hour Golf and Country Club. As soon as he took office in December 2007, the city began paying his dues there. Those run about $400 per month -- in January, they rose from $402 to $415 -- indicating that taxpayers have paid about $18,000 so far for his membership since he took office.
Reichert said that serves a useful purpose: a social setting to impress visiting dignitaries and potential business developers, perhaps playing a round of golf with them -- though he noted in passing that the city does own its own golf course.
The council deemed the expenditure appropriate, no different from Ellis’ city-paid membership in the now-defunct City Club of Macon, Reichert said. And since Reichert already was a member, the city didn’t have to pay his $20,000 country club initiation fee, he said.
Timley scoffed at that justification.
“There’s no place in the city that he can take visiting dignitaries to, that would be impressive enough?” he asked. “I don’t think we can approve spending taxpayers’ money on a private club.”
Reichert, a lawyer on leave from his firm while he serves as mayor, has also had his state and national bar association dues paid by the city each year. In 2010, payments to the American Bar Association and State Bar of Georgia totaled $770.
Reichert said that’s justified because the city benefits from his expertise as an attorney and his prestige as a bar association member.
City finance records show country club and bar association payments coming from the “dues” category of the mayoral budget, which is approved as a lump sum without specifying which dues will be paid from it. Timley said the council approved those categories as a whole, but not country club and bar association dues specifically.
“We didn’t hire him as an attorney. We hired him as a mayor,” he said. “The council’s going to have to talk about that.”
Card rules and rationale
The city code sections governing use of credit and purchasing cards say they cannot be used for anything “unrelated to official city business.”
“Each holder of the purchasing card has to read the city code section and then sign a paper stating that they have read and understand,” Finance Director Dale Walker said.
Violators are personally liable for any unallowable expenses.
“In the case of an elected official, upon resolution of the governing authority, failure to comply with the provisions of this section shall be grounds for public censure and the loss of credit card privileges,” the code says.
Walker said he’s reviewing those rules, comparing them to other cities’, for possible updating.
On Jan. 6 the city hosted an event at Terminal Station for Jim Marshall, the former mayor who was returning from two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives after his November 2010 defeat by current Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ashburn. Onto Reichert’s city card went not just the $486 food bill from Kudzu Catering, but $305.71 to Vineville Beverage & Cigar Shop.
Again, spending nearly 40 percent of the cost on alcoholic drinks was “more than appropriate,” Reichert said, as a way to show appreciation for Marshall. Displaying the city’s gratitude will curry favor with “past, present and future” members of Congress, making it more likely they’ll be willing to help Macon, he said.
Welcoming high-ranking new city employees also falls under Reichert’s city-funded hospitality. On May 26 he paid for a party of six at Marco Ristorante Italiano, including $263.75 in food, $132.80 in alcohol (10 glasses of wine, three Dewars scotches and a Ketel One vodka), and a $60 tip. Numerous receipts show that Reichert usually tips between 15 and 20 percent.
That night he and his wife, Dele, were greeting the newly arrived Finance Director Walker, Inspection & Fees Director Tom Buttram, and their wives.
“We decided to go to Marco’s and show them a nice place and a decent meal,” Reichert said.
On July 15, as in previous years, Reichert used his city card to buy four tickets in the ninth row for the four-show “Destination: Broadway” series at the Grand Opera House. Altogether the tickets cost $690 and are destined for “no one in particular,” he said.
Reichert buys them for the “option and flexibility” of proving to business prospects that Macon’s not a “backwater, hayseed, hick town,” he said. In the past, visits from those prospects haven’t necessarily coincided with show dates, so he’s given the tickets to city department heads, left them unused, or “occasionally” used them himself, he said.
Timley and Ellington both said the ticket buy was news to them.
Council members got “so much pushback” when they were given tickets to events at the Macon Coliseum, Timley said, that he can’t imagine treating others to shows at the opera house would be considered legitimate.
Ellington said: “It troubles me to have that kind of money spent and then have the tickets go unused.”
“I’m a lot less confident with country club dues (than with show tickets), but I would be interested to hear the explanation and justification,” he said.
Sleep isn’t cheap
Purchasing card records from a variety of city departments show that when Macon’s employees travel, they usually stay in fairly modest hotels, costing about $100 per night. At events like the GMA convention, council members -- and on that occasion, Reichert -- stay for between $100 and $200 per night.
When Reichert travels alone, the price is usually a good bit higher: the Capital Hilton and St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C., Hiltons in Chicago and Atlanta, and the The Roosevelt in New Orleans. The last is the most expensive; three nights’ stay in May for him and his wife cost the city $350.50 per night, as he attended a U.S. Conference of Mayors committee meeting.
The average cost of Reichert’s hotel rooms, based on two weeks of travel this year, is about $270 per night.
As part of ongoing budget-tightening, the council is trying to trim travel expenses, Ellington said.
“Generally when we look at this stuff most closely is during mid-year review or during the budget process,” he said. “The mayor’s office shouldn’t be exempt from that.”
Most, perhaps all, of Reichert’s stays were at hotels associated with specific events he was attending.
When scheduling those trips, he said, he does not shop around to see if there’s an acceptable but less expensive alternative next door, even in hotel-heavy cities like New Orleans.
“I’ve never tried to do that, because then you get onto the slippery slope of ‘Well, there’s one two blocks down that was half as much,’ ’’ Reichert said. “Where do you want me to stop?”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.