Six members of the Colonial Heights City Council spent an average of $76 per person when they gathered for dinner on the first night of the Virginia Municipal League conference last October.
“That is steep,” acknowledged City Councilwoman Patricia L. Cox, who attended the dinner at Clubsoda in downtown Norfolk.
“For the most part, we are frugal. I don’t try to go [to the conference] and cut costs, so to speak. I try to be conscientious [because] it’s city money.”
She added: “When you’re trying to please six or seven palates, that is the key. You’re not going to a burger place or Applebee’s.”
Many cities, including Richmond, court the conference because they recognize the advantage to restaurants and other businesses, said R. Michael Amyx, executive director of the municipal league.
On the first night of last October’s conference, the town of Marion spent $266 for 13 officials to eat at the Freemason Abbey Restaurant and Tavern.
Berryville spent $175 for three officials and one spouse to eat at The Blue Hippo. The restaurant has offered such exotic entrees as rabbit, kangaroo, antelope and wild boar — but not hippo.
South Boston spent $18 on a rib dinner at Chili’s for one of its council members.
Meanwhile, Fredericksburg spent $1,653 when its officials invited their counterparts from Williamsburg to dinner at Magnolia Steak. The cities are paired in the municipal league’s “Virginians to Virginians” exchange program and take turns serving as meal hosts at various functions.
While many localities pay for meals based on officials’ submitted receipts, Richmond takes a different approach. Whether officials have an appetite for filet mignon or Big Macs makes no difference to city taxpayers. City Council members and other officials get a set amount of money for meals when they travel on public business.
At last October’s conference in Norfolk, Councilman G. Manoli Loupassi got $85 to cover meals for two travel days and one full day. All told, Richmond spent $323 to feed four officials who used the meal money.
Loupassi said he considers the meal policy fair, even though he often ends up paying from his own pocket. “We have to save money every which way we can.”
For its part, Colonial Heights spent $830 on meals during the conference.
Much of the cost was attributed to Mayor John T. Wood, who put the group dinner at Clubsoda on his personal credit card. He also dined at the Hippo, The 219 Restaurant and The Painted Lady. Lunch at the Lady included snapper, Southern Comfort and soup du jour, according to the receipt.
By gathering for dinner, officials are able to decide which workshops would most benefit the city, Wood said.
“It’s a rare opportunity for the council members to get together and discuss what’s coming up at the conference,” he said.
Will Jones is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Times-Dispatch staff writers Rex Bowman, Tina Eshleman, Bill Geroux, Kiran Krishnamurthy and Carlos Santos contributed to this report.