ROANOKE – Fewer people than usual attended this year’s Virginia Municipal League conference, partly because of recent newspaper articles detailing how attendees spent taxpayer money at last year’s gathering, organizers say.
Attendance at this year’s conference, which kicked off Sunday and ran through Tuesday at the Hotel Roanoke, is down 5 to 7 percent, estimated David Parsons, spokesman for the municipal league. The league is an association of town, city and county officials across the state.
Last year, 543 officials attended the conference in Norfolk, and 100 of their spouses and guests accompanied them at the public’s expense. Officials say they use the conference to share information about common problems and to sharpen their governing skills.
Parsons said many people were prompted to call off their trip to Roanoke by articles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this month that disclosed taxpayers picked up the tab for some expensive meals, golf games and harbor tours at the 2002 conference in Norfolk. Altogether, the trip cost taxpayers about $410,000.
Companion stories in the Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger reported on expenditures in the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park and the four incorporated towns in Prince William County.
Manassas Park sent three representatives – City Manager David Reynal, Deputy City Manager Mercury Payton and Council Member I. Allen Correll – to the conference last year. Reynal said the group traveled in one car and found the event and its speakers worth while and very informative.
Despite reports of extravagant spending by some jurisdictions, Manassas Park officials felt they had nothing to change this year.
“We weren’t in the high roller group to begin with,” Correll said. “We didn’t change our practices any. We stopped at McDonald’s on the way up.”
The city spent $2,477 last year in Norfolk for four representatives, with only $111.43 total spent on meals. Payton said they didn’t participate in anything besides what was called for by the conference in Roanoke.
As opposed to representatives from other jurisdictions, Correll didn’t charge the city for any of his wife’s expenses for the trip last year. He was the only member to bring a spouse last year, and no spouses went this year from Manassas Park.
Manassas Mayor Marvin L. Gillum chose to stay home during this year’s conference, but urged Council Members to attend. “We’re gong to try to reduce the tax rates,” Gillum said. “To do that we’re going to have to reduce expenditure, and I think that starts with the mayor. I felt it was a good time not to go.”
City Manager Lawrence Hughes, Vice Mayor Harry J. Parrish II, Councilman J. Stephen Randolph, City Attorney Robert Bendall, Councilman Ulysses X. White and his wife attended this year’s conference. This is a drop from last year’s 13 attendees, who spent a total of $7,820.99 in city dollars when Manassas officials celebrated winning the VML Main Street Award.
Of Prince William’s four towns, Haymarket and Quantico did not send any representatives to the conference this year, nor did they last year.
In Occoquan, Town Councilwoman Bobbie Frank and her husband Win Frank, who is the town treasurer, attended this year as they did last year.
While the town pays Bobbie Frank’s expenses, Win Frank paid his own way last year and will again this year, according to town officials.
Last year, the town paid Bobbie Frank’s registration fee of $275, three nights hotel stay and parking costing $494.50 as well as meal and mileage totally $205.34. The couple opted for valet parking for an additional $15.
Win Frank paid for the valet parking.
The town of Dumfries had planned on sending all but one of its six council members, its mayor and its town manager. However, illness kept two of those council members – Sue Cornell and Vice Mayor Stephanie Bradley – from attending this year.
Negative publicity about the cost of the conference to the town had nothing to do with either woman’s decision not to attend this year, they said.
Learning how to work with state and county officials, networking with other towns and cities with similar challenges and discovering how they handle them are among the offerings of VML conferences, Bradley said. “It’s more of a workshop than a conference,” Bradley said. “We attend meetings from 9 in the morning until 10 at night. There is no time for partying and golf.
“It is well, well, worth the money spent,” Bradley said, pointing out it is the only opportunity for continuing education available to elected town and city officials.
Last year the town of Dumfries spent $7,345 to send its police chief, town manager and six council members to the conference.
Bradley said the police chief attended last year because of some of the programs at the conference that specifically addressed emergency preparedness following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
As it did last year, the town of Dumfries will again pay the $275 registration fee for all those attending, totaling $1,375; three nights stay at a hotel costing $418.11 a person for a total of $2,090.55; and the $21 optional dinner that all will attend, costing $105.
Additionally, each will receive $42 per diem totaling $630. Those who decide to bring their spouse are responsible for paying for their meals.
The total cost of this year’s conference to the town of Dumfries had been projected to be $5,880.77.
With only five of the original seven attending, the projected cost has dropped to $4,200.55.
Rex Bowman is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Sari Krieger and Aileen Streng, who write for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger contributed to this story.