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Gravy Train

In the absence of any written restrictions, some San Jose pols are wolfing down tasty meals at ritzy restaurants--and taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Story by Will Harper
Illustrations by Steven DeCinzo

The meal starts modestly enough with Caesar salad and French onion soup. When all the salad plates and soup bowls have have been cleared, it's on to La Trattoria's exquisite main courses: jumbo shrimp, lemon linguini, swordfish, mahi mahi, lamb chops, New York steak. Red wine, scotch or Jack Daniels are ordered to help wash it down. The dessert menu turns up and before long, bellies are bulging. The bill finally arrives: $234. Bill it to the boss!

While this might sound like the exploits of a spoiled corporate executive, the preceding tale is woven from a travel expense report submitted by a San Jose city council member who drove down to Long Beach in late 1995 for a school board convention and partied with some old colleagues. "The boss" picking up the check was the taxpaying public. And that wasn't the only meal the public paid for on that high-rolling trip, taken by Councilman George Shirakawa, Jr.. There was another $257 feast, too.

An examination of city finance records for elected and appointed officials shows that each year San Jose taxpayers are paying for hundreds of meals, costing thousands of dollars, both on the road and at home. When they're at home, the politicians and city bosses are given special treatment, operating under a different set of rules than their employees.

And when they dine, the city's top brass aren't scrimping by ordering pizza or going to the nearby International House of Pancakes--an aide to the mayor practically laughed at the idea of going to IHOP. No, the pols are eating at some of San Jose's better kitchens. Sometimes it's iced tea and $14 duck during a "working lunch" at Bella Mia, a favorite downtown eatery. Other times it's a $5 glass of chardonnay and a $16.95 halibut entrée at the handsome Eight Forty North First before the evening session of the council meeting. Once in a while, it's sushi at Tsugaru Japanese Restaurant.

The publicly subsidized feeding frenzy goes on because the politicians--unlike rank-and-file employees, who are more tightly regulated--have no written policy governing reimbursements for local meal expenses. So it's up to each elected official to individually decide what is a legitimate meal expense and how much to spend. The result is that dozens of meals are written off as "working lunches" or "dinner meetings" discussing "city issues." All too often councilmembers are dining off-site with the people who work right down the hall from them.

Metro examined hundreds of restaurant receipts, invoices, travel statements, finance documents, accounting summaries and vendor payments covering an 18-month period between July 1, 1995, and Dec. 31, 1996. During the study period, San Jose's elected politicians and their aides ran up an estimated $9,070 tab at local restaurants and devoured about another $3,300 worth of food while at conventions and the like--including $589 for room service. City Manager Regina Williams, meanwhile--the city's $158,000-a-year top executive who also receives special treatment--charged $1,283 at local restaurants to her city credit card for applicant interviews, power lunches with her deputies, and pre­council meeting dinners with such colleagues as City Attorney Joan Gallo.

Each little transaction reveals something about our elected officials' personal judgment. Do they get the $8 pasta or the $18 swordfish plate? When out of town, do they park their cars themselves or do they splurge on valet parking? As one official in the county administration building next to City Hall said: "The same guy who spends a little extra taxpayer money for valet parking is the same guy deciding that billion-dollar budget."

In addition to decadent meals and travel expenses, here are some other morsels Metro found in finance documents:

  • Alice Woody treated neighborhood block captains in her district to a Neil Diamond concert at the arena and $100 of "seasonal fresh fruit."

  • Councilwoman Pat Dando and her aide paid $70 to hear country singer Naomi Judd give an inspirational speech at the Fairmont Hotel duing one of the UMCA's community prayer breakfasts.

  • Within two months, four councilmembers--Frank Fiscalini, John Diquisto, George Shirakawa and Margie Fernandes--each shelled out an average of $400 for medium-big-screen TV/VCR combinations for their offices. They explained that more information is given to them on video nowadays. Besides, they need to watch and tape the news.

  • An aide to Alice Woody billed the city $2.68 for a video she listed as training material used during a retreat. The video: The American President, a Hollywood yarn starring Michael Douglas.

ALTHOUGH SOME KINDS of expenditures have limits--car allowances are capped at $350 per month, for instance--the mayor and all councilmembers have full discretion for meal spending. Some members, such as David Pandori, John Diquisto, Pat Dando and Frank Fiscalini, generally eschew spending tax dollars for dining out. "If I want a meal, I cook it for myself," says Diquisto, who spent no city money at San Jose restaurants during the study period. Dando, who spent only $107 to prime the local restaurant economy, says she's going to have to eat whether or not she does it while doing city business, so she usually pays for her own meals unless she's meeting with multiple people. Joe Guerra, chief of staff to Fiscalini, says his boss prefers to charge restaurant expenses to his officeholder or "friends" account, funded by private contributions. "We just don't think it's a tremendously good use of city funds," Guerra says.

On the other side of the trough, Mayor Susan Hammer, City Manager Regina Williams and councilmembers Alice Woody, Charlotte Powers, Trixie Johnson and Margie Fernandes eat well and often at the public's expense. Woody and her staff spent $2,353.69 at local eateries. Only Hammer, who has more mouths to feed with her extensive staff, billed the city more: $2,401.66 by our conservative estimate. Fernandes and Powers each put about $1,200 on their city tabs, while Johnson billed taxpayers another $739.

They say that in order to maximize the productivity of their hectic schedules, doing business over lunch or dinner is often a must. Or before nighttime council meetings, they just don't have time to go home and eat and then return to City Hall. Regina Williams explains that if she's trying to forge a better relationship with a staffer or wants a good sense of a job applicant's style, it's better done in an informal setting in a restaurant than across a desk. Vice Mayor Margie Fernandes adds that business meals are an expected cost of public office with a line item in each councilmember's office budget. Fernandes says she's not independently wealthy--she supports five kids with her husband, a schoolteacher--and can't afford to pay for every business lunch or dinner.

When asked why they don't grab more sandwiches and fewer pieces of sushi, Alice Woody and Charlotte Powers, two of the hungrier councilmembers, said they often do. But if they go to Burger King, for example, both councilmembers say they don't charge their Whoppers to the city; hence, those fast-food meal expenses don't show up in accounting records. Ultimately, officials rationalize, they eat with all the suits at Eight Forty North First out of convenience: It's right across the street from City Hall. But two blocks away is the International House of Pancakes. IHOP just recently re-opened, explains mayoral spokesman Kevin Pursglove. "I'm not saying if it were open we'd go there, too."

IN CONTRAST WITH THE City of San Jose's permissive spending policy, the county of Santa Clara keeps its employees and elected leaders on a very strict diet. Jim Sadtler, the county's chief accounting manager, says meal reimbursements are generally restricted to out-of-town travel, although there are exceptions: for example, if a supervisor goes to a local conference where food is served.

According to Sadtler, lunch and dinner reimbursements without receipts are capped at $8 and $15, respectively; with receipts they're capped at $16 and $30. "Unlike the city of San Jose, our elected officials rarely submit reimbursement requests for local meals," Sadtler says. Also unlike the city of San Jose, the county doesn't apply different reimbursement standards to elected leaders and rank-and-file employees. Everyone's subject to the same strict rules, Sadtler says.

Not so for San Jose's top brass. State law imposes only one primary restriction on them: that the meal serve some municipal purpose. Thus, those eating at the public trough always claim to be doing "city business." But it's often impossible to tell exactly what the nature of that city business was from their receipts. Many times councilmembers just scribble down incredibly vague notations like "working lunch," "lunch meeting" or "city issues discussed." Assistant City Clerk Nancy Alford explains that if the meals are eaten on the day of a council or redevelopment meeting, as many are, staff member assume that councilmembers were discussing particular agenda items for those meetings.

Clearly, a few thousand dollars for high-ranking public officials' dining costs isn't going to break the city's $524 million general fund, the funding source that pays for meals as well as basic services such as police and fire. But that's not the point, says Kim Alexander, director of the California Voter Foundation, a public watchdog group. It could very well be that San Jose taxpayers wouldn't mind treating their hard-working elected and appointed officials to nice meals, Alexander says. But taxpayers need to know about the situation before they can render a judgment. "There's nothing wrong with perks," she says, "as long as it's on the table that that's one of the perks with the job: that you get a free lunch once in a while."

Click on the names below to see how much they spent.

Also, more about the numbers Metro used, and city official's on the road spending habits.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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