Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker on Tuesday night proposed giving city councilors an allowance of city funds to use as they see fit, including to bring speakers before council who they believe could contribute to conversations about city business.
Walker proposed the measure during a policy and procedures work session about proposed changes to the city’s credit card use policy. Walker made the suggestion during discussion of a part of the proposed policy that says council as a body would have to approve payouts to individuals or groups.
“I would like to not have to ask you all every time I would like to do something,” Walker said. “If I want to bring in a person and I felt that she was suitable and could contribute to a conversation … that I … or any councilor in the future, and any of you all should be able to bring a person that you see could add value to the conversation to the table.”
“I don’t want to be hindered,” Walker added. “Is there space for innovation or for us to bring things to the table?”
Robertson explained to the council that there is currently no procedure that would authorize individual councilors to pay for goods and services with city credit cards, but that the council could vote to put such a procedure in place, and the policy could establish a spending limit.
“As a matter of law, absent that sort of [policy], the only thing that any individual councilor has the ability to do, particularly with a credit card, is to obtain reimbursement for purchases that were made of things that are normally considered reimbursable,” Robertson said.
Examples of reimbursable expenses under the current policy include travel expenses and home office supplies that councilors need to fulfill their duties, Robertson said.
Robertson said that if the council votes to put this procedure in place, councilors who want to bring in a specific expert or speaker will need to provide rationale for why they want to compensate that person.
“They are not just selected because they are your friend, but they are selected through some sort of process that makes those positions available based on certain criteria,” Robertson said.
Councilor Heather Hill and Vice Mayor Sena Magill suggested a spending limit of $1000.
“My preference is working through council office to approve purchases,” Hill said, but added that she was okay with creating a procedure that would allocate money for individual councilors to spend.
Councilor Lloyd Snook was opposed to creating such a procedure.
“I don’t think we should be doing [any spending] at all without approval of council,” said Snook.
Councilor Michael Payne said he “had no objection” to the proposal but also did not see the allocated funds being used due to the regulations under state statute.
The proposal outlines “council-authorized purchases and expenditures” that would come from the council’s budget after the whole body votes on them. They include charitable donations, compensation to individuals serving on a public body, the purchase of items for a council meeting or office supplies and travel reservations for an individual councilor.
“As is apparent from these proposed procedures, the fact that City Council has a budget doesn’t begin to address the issues associated with how City Council as a whole decides how that money will be spent,” said City Attorney Lisa Robertson.
The proposed changes stemmed from a February Facebook Live broadcast in which Walker said she was being investigated for using her city-issued credit card to pay for gift cards for community members and making a donation to a City Council meeting presenter’s nonprofit. Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania told the city manager last month that the city should focus on writing clear guidelines, as it would be difficult to prove misuse of the cards in court because employees have not been trained on which types of charges are acceptable and which are not.
“No one has ever told me that it was an issue to purchase and distribute gift cards,” Walker said in an email obtained by The Daily Progress, after a memo from Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson was sent to councilors regarding possible unauthorized public expenditures.
While city council can compensate individuals for their involvement in public advisory groups with city checks or cash equivalents such as Visa gift cards, Robertson emphasized that these payments must be authorized by City Council as a whole, and that these groups must be officially performing advisory or other functions for city council. Under the law, an individual councilor cannot provide this kind of compensation.
“If you’re setting up an advisory group … as a group, you have to not only authorize the group itself, but you have to specifically authorize compensation to be paid to those members and the amount of that compensation,” Robertson said.
Robertson said any compensation in such situations must be a “quid pro quo” in which the council receives a service in exchange for the payment. Having a guest consultant provide expertise to the council about a certain issue or topic, for example, would count.
Robertson also said that the city council as a body can make charitable donations, but must follow a state statute that requires that those funds be given to organizations rather than individuals, along with other parameters. Individual councilors may not use city funds to make charitable donations.
Walker said in a Facebook Live video in February that she had used the gift cards to compensate people who spoke to the council about equity issues.
“Community members come up with solutions that people who are making [$60,000 to] $200,000 can’t come up with, and I give them $25 gift cards for every hour that they spend and devote to helping us heal this community,” Walker said.
Council will vote on the policy changes on April 5th.