Last October, half of the Manassas Park City Council huddled into a city vehicle, and most of the Manassas City Council gassed up their own cars. They were all headed to Norfolk.
Their destination — the Virginia Municipal League conference, a 98-year-old three-day event that brings together leaders from jurisdictions from across the state.
“I think the meetings are generally productive and helpful,” said Manassas Park City Manager David Reynal. “They bring the issues up to date in terms of what’s happening in other areas.”
Officials gather in one of Virginia’s major cities each year to network and attend sessions designed to help them better govern their jurisdictions. City officials may also serve on committees and work with League staff to recommend legislation to state officials on a myriad of issues.
“It’s a time to network, to meet and know some other communities who might have similar interests, issues and problems,” Reynal said.
And as officials shuffled out of the event Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, taxpayers around the state paid the bill.
An average of $125.00 per room, per night, meals, parking and spouse events are normally charged to the city budget. Manassas Park officials spent a combined total of $2,422.52 for three council members and the city manager, according to a city report. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported a total figure of $2,477 for Manassas Park spending.
Manassas Park officials paid for some of their own food and Councilwoman Noreen Slater said being conservative with taxpayer money is an innate value in Manassas Park. All four attendees charged a total of $111.43 to the city for food.
“We just don’t spend the city’s money frivolously,” said Slater.
None of the Manassas Park council members used room service or valet parking, and they ate at modest restaurants, according to Slater.
Councilman I. Allen Correll was the only member to bring a spouse, and although other jurisdictions covered the cost for spouse activities in the amount of $110.00, Correll didn’t feel comfortable asking Manassas Park to do so for him.
“I just didn’t press the issue,” Correll said. “I like having my wife with me when I travel, and that was my choice.”
The Corrells paid for their own dinner Sunday night as well. “Maybe there’s a firm policy on it,” he said. “I just didn’t take the time to look it up. I figured if I paid for some stuff, that’s fine with me.”
City of Manassas attendees charged $7,820.99 total to the city.
Manassas Mayor Marvin L. Gillum said his colleagues from Manassas paid for some of their own lunches too, but Council Members Ulysses X. White and his wife, Robert Oliver and his wife, Mayor Gillum and his wife, J. Stephen Randolph, City Manager Lawrence Hughes, City Attorney Robert Bendal, Economic Development Manager Debra Sandlin, Prince William County Supervisor L. Ben Thompson, R-Brentsville, and his spouse all went to a steak and seafood restaurant called Kincaids, paid for by the city in the amount of $422.13.
Hughes said they had good reason — they were celebrating winning the Virginia Main Street Award.
“We won it not just because of the city, but because of several organizations that worked with us, including Historic Manassas Incorporated,” Hughes said. “Three representatives from Historic Manassas came with us, and one night we took the whole group out to dinner.”
But according to city financial documents, no charges were made to the city for those representatives’ dinners.
Mayor Gillum and the two Council Members that brought their wives did charge the spouse activity fee to the city, but Hughes said it was a display of appreciation for those husbands and wives who spend much of their time without their busy council member spouses.
“The spouse does without their husband or wife for between one and four evenings a week,” Hughes said. “They don’t have dinner together, they don’t do other things together because their spouse is involved in conducting city business.”
White brought his wife because he said that’s just what comes naturally to him. “Anytime I get a chance to take my wife someplace, I always take her with me.”
And while she was off learning about the Norfolk area and government processes, her husband worked with other transportation committee members, as well as attended the sessions and speeches. White said his committee had a preliminary meeting in July and final recommendations for state legislators are created at the VML conference.
“We try to get the state legislators to stop robbing the transportation fund to balance the budget,” White said.
Gillum said all council members serve on different committees, and he thinks the conference is a crucial learning experience. He also said they are careful not to overspend.
“We do think its most worthwhile education,” Gillum said. “But that’s the only time that the council goes anywhere at all, so I do think we’re very frugal.”
But one resident isn’t so sure.
“I think the city government needs to cut down on expenses,” said Manassas resident Hans Schmidt. “They have expenses that are unnecessary, like sending people on trips. I feel the more money they get, the more they spend on things like that.”
Manassas Taxpayers’ Association President Steve Allen said he is wary if more than one or two council members attend, and he disapproves of their eating at restaurants fancier than McDonald’s.
“If you present an attitude that you’re going to live high off the taxpayers’ dollars, that carries over into the way you handle the city budget,” Allen said.
Allen also objects to some council members charging small room service bills and valet parking to the city.
But Hughes said he didn’t think much about the self-parking option, which cost $17.00, as opposed to the $22.00 for valet.
“Someone just said ‘did you want us to park the car?’ and I said ‘yes.’ ”
An average of 1,000 people attend the conference that begins on a Sunday in mid-October every year. Registration, a golf tournament and an orientation occur on Sunday, but the “real meat” of the conference begins Monday morning with a keynote speaker, according to VML Executive Director Michael Amyx.
On Monday afternoon, attendees had a few rounds of workshops, with many to chose from in each time slot. Amyx said the focus is on sharing “best practices.”
“We really try to identify success stories in local government and share those in a workshop sort of setting,” Amyx said.
Slater attended last year as a newly elected official.
“They really do work you,” Slater said. “The meetings really do start at 8:30 or 9 in the morning and you only get a ten minute break. I found the sessions very challenging.”
Monday night is Host City Night. Dinner and entertainment gave the officials a chance to begin what Slater calls the real reason for these meetings — networking and picking the brains of others.
“Sitting down to lunch or talking at a cocktail party with your peers from around the state is how you learn,” Slater said. “It’s that sharing of information I find invaluable. You learn so much that you can’t even put into words, but you find yourself remembering it as you’re making decisions.”
Tuesday, Manassas and Manassas Park officials headed to more speeches and meetings, including round table discussions with experts. Amyx said every half hour, a bell rang to mark a table switch, and attendees learned about successful and low cost programs from around the state.
A banquet in the hotel ballroom concluded the event on Tuesday evening.
Manassas resident Roberta Dearden said these conferences enable council members to do their jobs better. Drawing from her conference experiences in the nursing home field, she recommends that for this year’s conference on Oct. 19-21, Manassas and Manassas Park should continue to send its representatives, but with a spending limit.
“I think they need to get together and do these kinds of things,” Dearden said. “but I think they ought to have a budget, so they’re not going to go out and spend more money than they should.”