Political Junkets: We Pay as They Go

All in favor say ’Aloha’

Fort Worth Mayor Hugh Partner recently billed taxpayers $35 a day for meals while attending a Washington conference at which meals were furnished by the federal government. Questioned about the practice, he said there was a simple explanation. The meals furnished at the conference were “banquet-type fare,” not suited to his taste, so he skipped the conference cuisine and dined elsewhere.

While Parmer’s actions might raise eyebrows among some constituents, they actually represent something that has been a tradition in this area for years: Taxpayer-financed junkets to faraway places have long been considered one of the amenities of public office. City councils, school boards, county commissioners courts and other governmental bodies all have budgets for travel.

Some consider it a form of compensation for volunteer public servants. “You’ve got to remember,” says Gerald King of the Dallas Independent School District, “these people [school board members) don’t get paid [a salary].” This year’s DISD itinerary included conventions in Atlanta and Anaheim, California, the home of Disneyland. DISD superintendent Nolan Estes does quite a bit more traveling than the board, King explains. But “because of his national prominence he can usually travel at somebody else’s expense.”

Tarrant County Commissioner Dick Andersen, who stayed at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel on a recent junket, has spent more on his travel this year than the five members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court combined. The Dallas City Council has spent about $12,000 this year on travel, while Fort Worth City Council members have spent about $10,000. Travel budgets average about $2,000 per official per year.

An official of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, asked to provide the records of the travel expenses of the airport board, responded that those records could not be released without the permission of airport director Ernest Dean, “and he’s gone to a conference in the Fiji Islands and won’t be back till the 15th.”

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