We do not envy city staffers who must create a policy that will satisfy Rock Island aldermen who believe ward expense accounts require only a little tweaking and also those who want a complete overhaul.
We are, of course, in the latter camp. And like Ald. Jenni Swanson, we take issue with the way Ald. James Spurgetis characterized efforts to fix the generous, unregulated $4,000 aldermanic expense accounts at the center of Monday’s study session discussion.
"People have to understand, we deal in millions of dollars in the city," Spurgetis argued. "I think we are doing a disservice to the council and to the city to pick at these small-potato issues. Some adjustment might be worthy, but let's not overreact."
Swanson took offense to his “small potatoes" complaint. “What I'm trying to do is stop the circus," she said. "I don't want to be over-the-fold in the newspaper anymore. As new aldermen, we are tired of being lumped in with the circus."
Blame for that "circus," Ald. Dylan Parker says, rests with the media, mostly us. In pushing to preserve both credit cards and expense accounts, he maintains that misuses of his city credit card by former Ald. Virgil Mayberry detailed in a Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com investigation were an aberration.
We’re happy to take the fire if it leads to a new policy that will make it much harder for any other alderman to use city money for personal expenses and increases transparency and accountability for every dollar spent.
"I've gotten more email and letters on this topic than anything else in the last two years,” Mayor Mike Thoms said Monday. “The perception by the public is bad. We need to work on changing that perception."
He’s right. It would be helpful in doing so to see how other cities handle council member spending.
City finance director Stephanie Masson, who did yeoman’s duty in keeping Monday’s discussion on track while furiously scribbling notes, provided an avenue for doing that. She did a study of ward expense accounts in other cities, including Moline, East Moline, Silvis, Davenport, Bettendorf, and Geneseo. Of the seven that responded, only one was like Rock Island in providing city credit cards to all elected officials. Four others gave them to the mayor only.
Based on the information she received, Masson also deduced that only Davenport appeared to join Rock Island in providing city funds for aldermen to use for charitable contributions.
We do not doubt that most aldermen are careful and deliberative in making those donations. But why should they have individual city-funded piggy banks from which to do so? After all, they already help control millions of dollars each year -- hardly “small potatoes” -- for that purpose. And those dollars are allocated in a competitive, open process.
If aldermen want to donate more, they're free to do so using their own money, Swanson said, adding, "We need to be really thoughtful of how we are spending people's money."
They also need to be accountable. That doesn’t happen when aldermen are given credit cards to spend as they wish. As Thoms said, "With a credit card, the money is already spent, so how do you get someone to pay the city back?"
Given all that, one would think that aldermen would unanimously agree to surrender their city credit cards in favor of a carefully documented reimbursement system. Sadly, there did not appear to be agreement on that question or Thoms' recommendation to eliminate the $2,000 representation fund while keeping the $2,000 development fund. It’s an elegant solution we support because it eliminates extra general fund donations by individual aldermen, but allows them to attend conferences on city business.
Aldermen also failed to agree on other issues, including who pays for city insignia clothing and lunches at which city business is conducted. Yes, Masson & Co. have their work cut out for them as they draft a new policy in time for a July 22 vote.
We've had our say. So have aldermen. We urge Rock Islanders to add their voices by contacting their alderman. Remember, please, they are more likely to listen if you deliver your message civilly and constructively. Find your alderman's contact information at https://www.rigov.org/Directory.aspx?did=5.