Current members of Birmingham’s City Council spent a total of $78,555 on travel between November 2017, when the bulk of councilors took office, and May 2019, a look at the council’s meeting agendas reveals.
That amount does not include trips for which a final total has not yet been approved. Estimated costs for city-funded trips are approved beforehand by the council; after the trip, the council votes again to approve the actual amount spent.
District 4 Councilor William Parker tops the list of the city’s most-traveled councilors, having spent $30,334.15 on 41 trips since November 2017. He’s followed by District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who has spent $21,554.04 on 13 trips, and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, who has spent $16,136.80 on five trips.
District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, with $12,719.07 for 13 trips; District 7 Councilor Wardine Alexander, with $3,174.65 for two trips; and Council President Valerie Abbott, with $346.70 for one trip round out the list.
The remaining councilors — District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods, District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams and District 6 Councilor Crystal Smitherman — each have no confirmed travel expenses since they took office, although Woods and Smitherman have each taken one trip, the expenses for which are pending final council approval.
For comparison, Mayor Randall Woodfin has logged $9,224.49 in travel expenses since November 2017. His expenses are not subject to council approval and are self-reported.
“Meeting with Sports Officials …”
The majority of Parker’s trips have been to either Montgomery or Atlanta. Thirteen trips, at an average cost of $393.18, were to attend the 2018 session of the Alabama Legislature. Fourteen trips to Atlanta, averaging $601.65 per trip, focused largely on sports recruitment. They’re cited in council agendas with descriptions such as “Meeting with sports officials about games at Legion Field,” “Meeting with sports officials regarding football recruitment,” and most simply, “Recruitment of games meeting.”
Those aren’t Parker’s only athletics-focused trips; a handful of trips to Charlotte, North Carolina, and Orlando, Florida, also have stated goals of sports recruitment. His most expensive single trip was a $2,071.54, two-day trip to New York City for the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, an event intended to “examine the business of college sports … (providing) an ‘insider’s view’ by offering firsthand insights from those directly shaping the future of intercollegiate athletics.”
Parker said the majority of those trips are about one location in Birmingham: Legion Field, the 92-year-old stadium in the city’s Graymont Neighborhood.
“I think we have an obligation to make sure that Legion Field is viable for the next 50 to 100 years, as it relates to looking for additional programming,” Parker said. “That means college football games, soccer games … . We have to go out and aggressively market and pursue opportunities for Legion Field.”
The stadium is not in Parker’s district — it’s in District 5, represented by O’Quinn. But Parker, who sits on the city’s park and recreation board and heads the council’s park and recreation committee, said his travels will affect the city as a whole.
“We have to go out and sell Birmingham,” he said. “It’s increased revenue opportunities. By us having events at Legion Field, that increases the opportunity for restaurants and stores to increase their income. It has an economic impact, and that’s one of the duties of the chair of the parks committee, to aggressively go out and pursue opportunities and bring back deliverables.”
Those deliverables, he said, included bringing the Birmingham Iron football team to the city in 2018. That team was part of the Alliance of American Football, which folded earlier this year. While the city was not responsible for that shutdown, Parker said, the team’s three-month run was responsible for “millions of dollars’ worth” of national exposure through the games being broadcast on national television. “Just being able to bring in that opportunity shows that we can deliver, and we’re going to continue to deliver,” he said.
Trips that have not yet received final approval include O’Quinn’s May 18-22 trip to Frankfurt, Germany, to attend a “transatlantic dialogue on sustainable mobility.” That trip was pre-approved for a total of $5,084.93, though O’Quinn told BirminghamWatch that “there will be a big difference between the advance and the actual as a portion of the expenses are being covered by the hosts.”
Aside from trips to annual events such as the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., and the Alabama League of Municipalities’ yearly meeting, O’Quinn’s travel generally focuses on public transit-related events.
That includes a trip to Dallas for a conference focused on purchasing bonds to fund transportation, and a trip to Los Angeles for the LA CoMotion Global Laboratory of Future Mobility Conference, both of which took place in November 2018.
Also pending final approval is Hoyt’s May 1-11 trip to Queensland, Australia, which was approved in advance for $8,930.07 — making it the most expensive single trip the city has paid for since November 2017. That trip was to attend the Sport Accord 2019 Summit as part of a delegation representing the 2021 World Games, which will be held in Birmingham.
That trip is also notable because Hoyt arrived four days early for the conference, which took place from May 5 to 10. Hoyt said that would allow time for “your body to adjust and all that … to adjust to the time zones (after) 14 hours in the air.”
Hoyt took exception with BirminghamWatch’s coverage of this trip, saying it did not give equal coverage on O’Quinn’s travel. “Treat me like you treat anyone else,” Hoyt wrote in an email. “I am the least (traveled) person outside of Valarie (sic) Abbott only because she doesn’t travel. Check the records.”
According to council agendas, Hoyt has the third-highest confirmed travel expenditures on the council since November 2017 — and, if pending expenses such as the Australia trip and O’Quinn’s trip to Germany are calculated into final totals, the second highest.
Aside from the Australia trip, Hoyt’s only city-funded travels are to annual conferences in Washington, D.C., including the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference, the Congressional Black Caucus Conference and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition Annual Conference.
Hoyt had said that last month’s trip to Australia was so expensive because the mayor’s office had waited to book the trip “until the last minute,” at which point the price of airfare had “tripled.” Representatives from Woodfin’s office denied that this was the case, as all City Council travel is booked through the council’s office.
On May 5, the day the Sport Accord Summit was slated to begin, Hoyt publicly posted photos of himself and his wife celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary on an Australian beach to his Facebook page. There is no indication that city money paid for his wife’s travel expenses.
Of the three councilors who have logged no travel expenses, two — Clinton Woods and Crystal Smitherman — have been in office for less than six months.
Woods was approved for a May 22-23 trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the 2019 Igniting Innovation Conference for a total of $1,067.50.
Smitherman was approved for a $1,941.51 trip to Houston, Texas, to attend the Center for Community Progress Vacant Spaces into Vibrant Places conference May 13-16. Final expense reports from both trips are pending.
Out of councilors who have been in office since November 2017, only District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams has spent no money on travel. “I’m not saying I never will,” he said. “If there’s something I really think is important — if I found a grant, and I had to go to Washington to apply and have an interview — I would go. But so far, I haven’t had a need to leave the state of Alabama.”
Instead, Williams says he plans to allocate the money he would have used for travel to his district’s public improvements fund, which he says was depleted by his predecessor. “I can use (that money) to match a grant or build a sidewalk or to do (another) project,” he said.