Charlottesville city councilors each will have a $1,000 allowance of city funds to use at their discretion after a Monday night vote to approve amendments to the city’s credit card use and expenditure policy.
The council voted 3-2 to approve the amendments, with Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Lloyd Snook voting no.
Walker was frustrated that individual councilors will have to seek approval from the council as a whole before spending the money.
“I do think that if we are having individual counselors doing individual work that we should be able to have funding to do that work, and this seems very restrictive and paternalistic,” Walker said, noting that the people voted for the councilors.
The amendments include a change proposed on March 23 that allows councilors to commit funds within the council’s budget to be used for discretionary spending up to $1,000 per councilor.
Councilors will have another work session before the Fiscal Year 2022 budget is adopted to establish discretionary spending budgets for councilors and decide how the money may be spent. Examples discussed include compensating speakers or consultants who address or advise the council at a public meeting on matters of public concern in the city and hosting community dinners. Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson said that by state law, councilors will have to establish very specific line-item budgets for the money.
The policy also states that when selecting speakers or consultants to provide these contract services, councilors will make a good faith effort to provide for competition among similarly qualified speakers and consultants.
Councilors must also verify with the clerk of council that a sufficient amount of budgeted funding is available to cover the proposed commitment. Any payment for these expenditures must be arranged by the clerk or city manager on the clerk’s city credit card or another approved method. Individual councilors’ credit cards cannot be used to pay for those expenditures.
Councilor Michael Payne agreed with setting the money aside, but was concerned that the practice adhere to state law.
“We just need to decide a dollar amount for specific expenditures, confirm that specific expenditures that would be in the policy are also all things that are allowed under state law, and then council as a whole can vote on it,” Payne said.
While the council can pay people for their involvement in public advisory groups with city checks or cash equivalents, the payments must be authorized by the City Council as a whole, and these groups must be officially performing advisory or other functions for the council. Under state law, an individual councilor cannot provide this kind of compensation.
Snook said he was opposed to allocating $1,000 to councilors to pay consultants and speakers.
“I think $1,000 is very low,” Walker said.
Robertson said that she and City Clerk Kyna Thomas met with officials from the city of Richmond to discuss their expenditure policies and used this to help inform the amendments.
Councilors can only use their credit cards to purchase reimbursable expenses, tokens of sympathy or appreciation for city staff and goods, services or items approved by the City Council as a body. For example, the council may vote to authorize an individual councilor who is leading an international trip to charge certain group expenses to the city credit card issued to that councilor.
Reimbursable expenses under this policy include office supplies and furniture, dues for organizations and payments for seminars related to city business, and meals and refreshments purchased by a councilor for themselves while meeting with constituents.
The city started the process of amending credit card use policies after Walker said during a February Facebook Live that she was being investigated for using her city-issued credit card. Walker used her credit card to pay for gift cards as compensation for community members who participated in advisory groups. She also made a donation to a City Council meeting presenter’s nonprofit.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania told the city manager in February 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. The city did not previously have an expenditure or credit card policy.
Under the new procedures, any councilor who uses a credit card, or otherwise obligates city funds to be expended, for purposes not authorized in the rules and procedures may be subject to civil fines, payment of reimbursement to the city and/or criminal prosecution.