The Oklahoma City Council voted down a measure Tuesday that would have lifted the moratorium on city payments for out-of-state travel by council members and the mayor.
The measure, which failed 6-3, would have rescinded the moratorium enacted on Oct. 27, 2009, after the city began to tighten its fiscal belt because of decreased revenue.
Council supporters of the measure said it was important that council members travel to other locations to see best-practice projects and projects undertaken by other cities, while opponents said the city should first look at restoring city positions that had been eliminated.
The city cut several positions and service funding after revenue shortfalls last fiscal year, and further projected shortfalls this fiscal year.
City Manager Jim Couch reported to the council at its Nov. 2 meeting that city revenue is coming in above projections.
Ward 5 Councilman J. Brian Walters introduced the measure, and said that while the city has not fully recovered from the economic downturn, restoring travel is a good first step toward demonstrating it is at least on the road to recovery.
"I thought it was appropriate based on the fact that revenue has improved," Walters said. "We're not out of the woods, we're not sending a message that everything is wonderful now, but it is getting better."
Mayor Mick Cornett agreed, and said it is important that the city began to go back to the way things were prior to the downturn.
"I think with MAPS 3, among other projects, we really do need staff and potentially the council to get out and see some of these other projects and best practices. We are overseeing the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars," Cornett said. "I feel like at some point we've got to remove this and start going back to business as usual. We've got some big decisions to make and we can't restrict ourselves in this manner."
However, Ward 8 Councilman Patrick Ryan disagreed, and said lifting the moratorium would send the wrong message.
"I think this is premature. We've seen some improving sales tax revenue, but there are some specific probably non-repeatable events that have driven that improvement," Ryan said. "I think we're premature in lifting our resolution about travel, and the second part of this is redundant."
Ryan said the moratorium was not adopted to save money, because not much money is involved in paying for council members to travel.
"It was designed to show a leadership " that we were willing to participate in the same deprivation of opportunities that our city employees deprived themselves of," Ryan said.
Other council members said the moratorium should be lifted only after the cut positions are restored.
"I do believe we have a priority with the additional revenues coming in, should they continue, to restore some of the positions that were vacated as a result of the cutbacks," said Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee. "I think we send the wrong message at this time that things are good without doing that."
Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs said the moratorium should not be lifted until the one on city staff travel is lifted as well.
"There's a message we send when we pass this, that if there's a feeling we wanted staff to understand that we're carrying the same burden they're carrying," Marrs said. "I don't know why if they're still carrying that burden, why we think we shouldn't have to carry it."
Ward 7 Councilman Ronald "Skip" Kelly, however, said that it is important for council members to see how other cities are implementing their various projects, rather than taking someone's word for it.
"My concern here is that we are taking this way out of character as to where we are now" Kelly said. "I get offended when we sit down and have to start looking at making major decisions with millions of dollars, and the only person we're listening to is a consultant. There are other people who are smarter than you are, but you are the person that was voted on by the citizens of Oklahoma City to make those decisions, but you never get to go see anything that is best practices for the City of Oklahoma City."
He challenged other council members to see if the council's previous travel expenditures would be enough to fund any city position.
"Nobody is immune to the fact that you have to have some accountability of the funds for an educational or a best-practices trip on behalf of the city," Kelly said. "I believe we are not being statesmen and leaders when we don't do the job that is in the best interest of this city, and part of it is doing business."
photos top to bottom councilmen J. Brian Walters, Patrick Ryan and Ronald "Skip" Kelly.