City of Boise, ID to adjust travel policies

The public will once again be able to learn the details about trips city officials and staff make on the taxpayers’ dime.

The City of Boise is currently in the process of revamping its travel expense policy to publish the details about where officials and staffers went, what they spent funds on, and other details. This is a change from the city’s practice in recent months of only sharing the name of the person traveling, the estimated cost, and the month in which the trip will occur, but not the destination or detailed expenditures with the public unless someone files a public records request after the fact.

BoiseDev first noticed the scale back in transparency on travel for both elected officials and staffers, when working on a story last fall about Boise Mayor Lauren McLean’s travel related to a significant business attraction project the city is working on.

After we asked questions, McLean’s Chief of Staff Courtney Washburn told us the city is opting to change the policy so the public can learn more about official trips on top of internal auditing after the trip has been completed.

[Police captain, commissioner, council member Vern Bisterfeldt dies; served more than 50 years in local public service]

“We are working with our legal department on the best way to make these changes and plan on bringing the adjustments to a work session for council consideration,” Washburn wrote in an email. “We will continue to be transparent and diligent to ensure the appropriate use of tax dollars.”

Boise City Council will need to approve the change if they want to codify it into law.

What is the new proposal?

The details are still being worked out, but city staff is mulling over a three-step process.

The proposal currently under consideration would start by putting city-related travel requests with limited information on the city council agenda ahead of the trip like the city does now. The trip request will also continue to go through an “extensive” internal auditing process to approve before the travel happens.

[Chemicals out: Boise continuing to cut down park pesticide use]

The change would include releasing all of the information from the trip after the official returns on the consent agenda portion of the city council agenda. The city is still working out exactly what information will be included after the trip, but city spokesman Justin Corr said this could include the official’s name, their destination and purpose of the trip, their arrival and return as well as the actual trip cost.

One possibility the city is considering is linking the public directly to the result of the accounting department’s audit of the trip, or simply listing the information. It will also include a declaration that none of the trip’s expenses were paid for by companies the city might be doing business with.

City of Boise travel has always been in the public eye

Boise has a tangled history with the use of public funds for travel, dating back to the winter of 2002. Aseries of trips, Broadway plays,Disneyland excursions, andexpensive dinners were uncovered by the media and investigators with the Idaho Attorney General’s office. In the end, Boise Mayor Brent Colesresigned and went to jail, his chief of staff landed in prison, and several other staffersincluding the police chiefresigned or were forced out.

The City of Boise instituted a series of reforms in the wake of the scandal. After Coles’ resignation, the city council pledged to put all requests for travel on the city council agenda, and require the council to approve them, a policy which started in 2003. However, the policy was never officially codified in city code. The city also launched the office of internal audit and made other changes including beefing up policies around procurement card spending.

In 2018, as BoiseDev reported, the city was billed for first-class travel by architect Moshe Safdie and an associate. Safdie’s firm had been contracted by the city for a $100-million plus library revamp, which later was canceled under intense public pressure and a ballot initiative. The city had OK’ed the travel for Safdie, but after our reporting, asked his firm to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the associate’s first-class ticket. The city under former Mayor Dave Bieter called the travel expense an “oversight,” but the city’s financial team didn’t catch the improper billing until BoiseDev spotted it in public records and began asking questions.

Boise to change travel expense policies, 20 years after Coles’ misuse of funds