Changes finally could be coming as to how Charlottesville city councilors can use city-issued credit cards and be reimbursed for expenses.
On Tuesday, the City Council will hold a work session on proposed changes to its policies, including adding specifics about council expenditures to its Rules and Procedures. The changes would put the responsibility on the council as a body to “address any apparent concerns as a group, with council staff and each other.”
The city’s current credit card policy was most recently questioned in February, when Mayor Nikuyah Walker said on Facebook that 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. Shortly after Walker’s Facebook post, the council held a closed session on the topic and later decided to schedule the work session.
In a letter last month, Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania told the city manager that the city should focus on writing clear guidelines, as any intentional misuse of the cards with the current policy would be difficult to prove in a criminal court case.
In interviews Monday, councilors said they want to see changes that make the policy clearer.
“It’s very outdated, and I think it has a lot of gray areas that put both council and staff in a lot of difficult, uncertain situations,” Councilor Michael Payne said.
“I want the policy to be clear enough so that no one can come in and say, ‘Well I didn’t know,’” Councilor Lloyd Snook said.
Councilor Heather Hill said she wants to see “mutual accountability on a council-level for our expenditures.”
With the way the expenditures currently work, Councilor Sena Magill said, city staffers, who answer to the council, are the checks and balances.
“You should never have someone be the checks and balances who’s below you in a power structure, because it puts them — whether it’s real or not — in the position of weighing their job and their own wellbeing, so that’s got to get changed,” she said.
Walker did not respond Monday to a request for an interview.
The current policy has the clerk of council review councilors’ statements and receipts, which are then passed off to the accounts payable and receivable office in the finance department. The policy is similar for cards used by staffers in all departments.
The proposed policy adds council-specific expenditure rules to the official council meeting rules and procedures.
The proposal outlines “council-authorized purchases and expenditures,” which would come from public funds within the council’s budget appropriation after being voted on by the body, including charitable donations, compensation to individuals serving on a public body and the purchases of items for a council meeting or office supplies, travel reservations for an individual councilor, etc., where such purchase is arranged by the clerk of council.
For those expenditures, individual councilors’ credit cards would not be used, but the clerk of council would pay with their city-issued credit card or through another form of payment.
“Reimbursement of individual councilors’ and council-staff members’ city business expenses” is also outlined in the draft, which includes expenses that would be eligible and ineligible for reimbursement or through using a city credit card. Eligible expenses include meals for councilors while meeting with constituents, travel and parking expenses for attendance at official functions and home office supplies.
The draft also spells out “prohibited expenditures,” including alcoholic beverages, personal items, services and gifts or donations to any individuals.
If a councilor wants to use a city-issued credit card “but is not sure whether or not a particular purchase constitutes a reimbursable … it shall be the responsibility of the councilor to seek guidance … Inquiry shall be made regardless of whether similar purchase(s) have previously been made prior to the adoption of these Council Rules and Procedures,” the draft says.
Oversight proposals include the council clerk sending monthly budget-to-actual expenditure reports to elected officials. Questionable expenditures would be brought to the attention of the council, then if not resolvable, they would go to the city attorney in consultation with the city manager and director of finance and/or law enforcement.
It also adds that councilors who use a city credit card or expend funds outside of the procedures may be subject to “civil fines, payment of reimbursement to the city, and/ or criminal prosecution.”
Walker, on Facebook and in emails sent in February, questioned why she was not made known that city staffers were questioning her purchase of gift cards and that they could be “unauthorized or illegal purchases that could result in civil or criminal liability and potentially cause audit issues.”
“No one has ever told me that it was an issue to purchase and distribute gift cards,” Walker said in an email obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Daily Progress, after a memo from Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson was sent to councilors regarding possible unauthorized public expenditures.
A mostly redacted December memo from Robertson to then-Acting City Manager John Blair and City Finance Director Chris Cullinan titled “Questionable City Council Credit Card Charge” was sent sometime after Walker filed a receipt for paying $150 to a nonprofit operated by Pamela Boyce Simms, who spoke at a council meeting in October.
In January, Walker sent an email to the council clerk asking the city finance department to “send Janice Redinger a check for her participation in the Imagining a Just Cville Group” for $300, as “she didn’t want gift cards.” That email was forwarded to Cullinan and Robertson.
According to other documents obtained from the city, proof of receipt forms for gift cards signed by councilors from Jan. 1, 2019, through Feb. 10, 2021, show at least $800 worth of gift cards were purchased by Walker during that time for community members who participated in certain programming, including her Imagining a Just Cville working group, the Second Chance City planning group and for the Planning Commission.
On Monday, councilors said they were supportive of compensating community members for their time, but through a yet-to-be determined process by the City Council.
Snook said paying people to make it easier for them to participate in the public process is a good thing.
“But we should have a policy that authorizes it. We should have an account that it comes out of, and so we just need to get our ducks in a row,” he said.
Magill said if the city wants to “bring equity forward,” the council needs to look at compensating community members.
“If we want to hear voices we’re not normally hearing, we have to figure out what’s standing in the way of hearing those voices,” she said.
It’s also important for councilors to use their cards for costs actually incurred in the job, Magill said, such as for meeting with constituents or for printer paper. Otherwise, she said, that “undercuts the cost of the job.”
“We have to have a fair representation of what this job actually costs people, and we don’t want somebody who doesn’t have the financial means necessary to cover some of those costs to then be picked on because they put more costs on their credit card,” she said.