NEWSWATCH

The Travel Expense Debate: Long Beach Port
Commissioner Fields Wants Audit Expanded

By Samantha Mehlinger - Staff Writer

September 24, 2013 – Long Beach Harbor Commission President Thomas Fields kicked off last week’s commission meeting by announcing his suggestion that City Auditor Laura Doud expand her audit of the commission’s travel expenses to cover all city officials’ travel paid for by the port during the past seven years.

Fields said he applauded Doud’s decision to audit the commission. “In fact, I want her to go even further. I have asked her to audit all the travel back to 2006,” he stated at the September 16 meeting, adding that the port has nothing to hide. The following day, Doud released a statement saying she “will determine if there is cause for an expanded review of travel expenses” after the results of the audit covering fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

Alex Bellehumeur, a harbor commissioner from 1990-96, told the Business Journal that Fields’ suggestion was “a reasonable request,” stating that “if the port is paying for city personnel and civic leaders’ travel, then that should be accounted for as well, it would seem to me.” He also remarked that the audit should cover at least three years.

On the other hand, John Hancock, a former harbor commissioner who served from 1995 to 2007, said a seven-year audit is “much more than is needed.” James Hankla, former city manager and former president of the harbor commission, declined to share an opinion, but said such an audit would “be an interesting analysis.” Hankla served on the commission from 2003 to 2009.

A presentation on the commission’s travel expenses by port Executive Director Al Moro at the August 27 city council budget oversight committee meeting spurred questions and criticism from 3rd District Councilmember Gary DeLong. He pointed out that port staff did not accompany commissioners on two trips. “It concerns me if commissioners are traveling without senior staff . . . if you are doing business,” he commented.

Some questions specifically pertained to Fields, who spent the most on travel among the commissioners. Bellehumeur said he hopes the audit will help resolve any misconceptions there might be about these expenses. “I think it’s certainly going to answer a whole lot of questions and take care of a lot of perception out there that is probably not accurate,” he said of the audit.

The disparity in Fields’ expenses may have a simple explanation, Bellehumeur said. “Let us say that the disparity with Tom Fields was in part created by the fact that he was requested by other commissioners to take the trips instead of themselves for whatever reason. These are trips he most likely would not have taken otherwise, so that has to be factored in,” he explained.

The Long Beach Harbor Commission’s travel expenses were addressed at city council on September 3. A motion led by DeLong passed, capping travel at $40,000 per commissioner for fiscal year 2014 and requiring that exceeding this limit may only be approved by a super-majority vote of four out of five commissioners. On September 12, Doud announced her plans to conduct the audit.

Moro oversees the commissioners’ travel and has the authority to yank funding for any trip. In comparison, the Port of Los Angeles has had a regulation in place since 2005, which states that any travel by commissioners must be approved in advance by the full board. In the event that the board is unavailable to review travel expenses, the executive director may approve travel if the board president signs off on it.

“I think it’s a massive overkill,” Hancock said of the audit. While he said, “Some guidelines on travel are perfectly appropriate,” he thinks the $40,000 cap is going to prove difficult for the port. “I think it is going to be negative for the port’s ability to maintain the contact and relationships with some of the customers.”