Birmingham’s Frequent Flyers: City officials have logged more than $300,000 in travel expenses. Where are they going — and what do they have to show for it?

An analysis of Birmingham City Council agendas from fiscal year 2017 shows city officials — not including the mayor — have spent or been allocated more than $300,000 in travel expenses since July 2016.

Officials using city money for travel include members of the City Council and its staff, mayor’s office staff, Police Chief A.C. Roper and two municipal court judges. A total of 73 individuals have received travel funds from the city during the past year.


Council’s Travels

Birmingham City Council meeting.

Members of the City Council have spent $96,893.20 of taxpayer money on travel expenses during the past fiscal year. Two members of the council, Council President Johnathan Austin and Councilor Valerie Abbott, did not have any travel expenses for the year. Abbott traditionally is the sole dissenting vote against approving travel expenditures at council meetings.

Of those who did travel, Councilor Jay Roberson did so least, spending $1,885.35 to attend a “United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization/United States Department of Interior Meeting” in Washington, D.C., last year.

Councilor Marcus Lundy spent $3,448.54 on four trips; Councilor Lashunda Scales spent $5,062.15 on three trips; Councilor Sheila Tyson spent $5,431.19 on four trips; and Councilor Kim Rafferty spent $8,046.26 on seven trips.

By far, though, Councilor William Parker spent the most city money while traveling during FY 2017. His total of $40,002.25 in travel expenses for 31 trips is the highest of any city official who traveled during that period. According to council agendas, Parker has spent 65 days traveling since July 2016 – nearly 18 percent of the fiscal year.

Most of Parker’s trips were to either Atlanta or Washington, D.C., and were often only listed with the vague descriptors of “Department of Interior Meetings” or “Environmental Protection Act Meetings.” Parker made four such trips – two to D.C., two to Atlanta, all labeled “EPA Meetings” – in January alone.

When asked to clarify the purpose of those meetings and the results they had yielded, Parker said that Weld had “all the information (it) needed” and refused to elaborate.

Such frequent trips are nothing new for Parker, who has been the most-traveled city councilor for most of his tenure; a 2015 report showed that he had spent $36,169.15 on 36 trips between Jan. 1, 2014, and May 15, 2015 – not counting a period from June 24, 2014, to Aug. 19, 2014, from which archived council agendas were not available. Parker was sworn in on Dec. 3, 2013.

Members of the City Council’s staff who also spent money on travel during FY 2017 include:

  • Cheryl Kidd, administrator for the City Council Office, who spent a total of $5,694.14 on six trips, mostly to events sponsored by the Alabama City/County Management Association.
  • Natricia Bibbs, committee assistant, who spent $1,349.49 to visit the Full Blast Battle Creek Site in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
  • Carlos Chaverst, committee assistant, who spent $1,282.78 to visit the Full Blast Battle Creek Site in Kalamazoo.
  • Kamila Gray-Lewis, committee assistant, who spent a total of $1,273.41 for two trips — one to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Meeting in New York City and another for “Lobby Day Planning for National Park” in Washington, D.C.
  • Emily Ingram, committee assistant, who spent $398.54 to attend the Black Women Roundtable at the Sixth Annual Women of Power National Summit in Arlington, Virginia.
  • Melva Langford, committee assistant, who spent a total of $2,341.02 on two trips — one to the Full Blast Battle Creek Site in Kalamazoo, and one to the 2017 Neighborhoods USA Conference in Omaha, Nebraska
  • Brandon McCray, committee assistant, who spent $1,931.91 to attend the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.
  • Chaz Mitchell, deputy administrator, who spent  a total of $9,490.92 on five trips – to the P3c-Public Private Partnership Conference Exposition in Dallas, Texas; the 111th National Government Financial Officers Association Conference in Denver, Colorado; the Congressional Black Caucus Conference in Washington, D.C.; and two separately listed, back-to-back trips, on Jan. 12-15 and 15-16, 2017, that were labeled “to meet with Federal Government Representatives to discuss grant opportunities/economic incentives.”
  • Chiara Morrow-Perry, interim director of Public Information, who spent a total of $4,370.24 on three trips – to the John Maxwell Advanced Leadership Certification Program in Orlando, Florida; the Black Women Roundtable at the Sixth Annual Women of Power National Summit in Arlington; and the 2017 Public Affairs and Government Communications Summit in Dallas.
  • Kandace Richards, committee assistant, who spent a total of $2,271.42 on two trips – one to the Full Blast Battle Creek Site in Kalamazoo and one to the 2017 Neighborhoods USA Conference in Omaha.
  • Brittany Sharp, the former director of public information, who spent $3,289.68 on three trips – to the Congressional Black Caucus Conference in Washington, D.C.; to the Full Blast Battle Creek Site Visit in Kalamazoo; and to “meet with federal government representatives to discuss grant opportunities/economic incentives” in Washington, D.C.
  • Leslie Smith, committee assistant, who spent $1,199.38 on “project management professional certification training at Project Management Academy” in Atlanta.
  • Desmond Wilson, public information multimedia specialist, who spent $1,961.74 on a trip to the 2017 Public Affairs and Government Communications Summit in Dallas.
  • Devin Wyatt, public information officer, who spent $2,254.03 to “meet with federal government representatives to discuss grant opportunities/economic incentives” in Washington, D.C.


Administrative Assistants

Looking at the city’s travel records also provides the clearest look at the makeup of the mayor’s staff, particularly regarding the identities of the 52 administrative assistants his proposed FY 2018 budget list as part of his office.

Repeated requests to the mayor’s office over the past month for a full list of administrative assistants have gone unanswered. The city’s website lists only two of them, Charles Long and Tanilya Edwards. Travel records show 17 more, whose travel expenses total $58,686.99:

  • Kwani Carson, who spent $2,568.19 on a trip to attend the National Science Foundation-Sustainable Smart Cities International Workshop from May 5-12, 2017, in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt.
  • Joi Coke, who spent a total of $3,976.84 on trips to the 2017 Neighborhood USA Conference in Omaha and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • Scott Colson, who spent a total of $6,735.11 on six trips, most of which were focused on Birmingham’s sister city partnership with Kingston, Jamaica.
  • Amber Courtney, also sometimes listed as a special projects coordinator for the mayor’s office, who spent $1,807.80 on two trips to conferences related to environmental responsibility.
  • Emily Hamilton, who spent $4,384.71 attending two meetings regarding President Obama’s TechHire Initiative.
  • Tanika Harrell, whose LinkedIn account describes her as both a “Project Manager for Team Civic Engagement” for the mayor’s office and a “full-time model/comedic actress,” who spent $2,538.25 on a trip to the 71st Annual International Institute of Municipal Clerks Conference in Montreal, Canada, where she served as a “city exhibit booth operator … in preparation for the 2019 IIMC Conference scheduled to take place in Birmingham, Alabama.”
  • Brendolyn High, who spent $4,195.21 on two trips – one to the 2017 National Forum for Black Public Administrators, and one to the Congressional Black Caucus Conference.
  • Gregory Jones, who spent $1,781 to attend the 2017 Neighborhoods USA Conference in Omaha.
  • Renee Kemp-Rotan, listed alternatively as an administrative assistant, chief administrative assistant and grants specialist for the mayor’s office, who spent $3,205 to attend two architectural conferences and the 2016 US/ICOMOS Benefit Gala & World Heritage Celebration.
  • Bacarra Mauldin, also a member of the MAX Transit board of directors, who spent $6,108.33 on six trips, including to several events hosted by the What Works Cities initiative.
  • Kevin Owens, who spent $4,723 on three disparate trips – one to the 2017 Annual Animal Care Expo, one to the Annual Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, and one to the Alabama City-County Managers Association.
  • Harhonda Pinkney, who spent $1,770.79 on a trip to the 2017 National Forum for Black Public Administrators.
  • Sybil Scarbrough, the most-traveled administrative assistant, who spent $8,709.93 on six trips — two to annual Neighborhood USA conferences and four to events sponsored by the National Forum for Black Public Administrators.
  • Cassandra Smith, who spent $4,425.17 on trips to Atlanta – one for project management professional certification training at Project Management Academy, the other for the National Council of State Housing Agencies
  • Bianca Walker, who spent $1,794.84 to attend the Neighborhoods USA Best Neighborhood Program Competition in Omaha.
  • Kim Weldon, who spent $1,956.29 on a trip to the 71st Annual International Institute of Municipal Clerks Conference in Montreal, Canada.
  • And Meagan Williams, who spent $1,735.51 to attend the 2017 Neighborhood USA Conference.

As noted above, information regarding the specific duties of these administrative assistants – as well as those of the 33 other, unnamed administrative assistants – has not been made available by the mayor’s office despite multiple requests.

Other members of Mayor Bell’s sizeable office who have traveled in the past year include social media manager Alice Brown, grant administrator Terrie Burrell, Director of Economic Development Lisa Cooper, administrative analyst Barbara Harris, project manager Tanilya Jackson, communications officer Jennifer Kennedy, senior project manager Griffin Lassiter, Director of Mayor’s Office of Citizen’s Assistance Don Lupo, economic development specialist Andrew Mayo, executive administrative assistant Sherri Nielson, Director of Public Information April Odom, Chief of Operations Jarvis Patton, executive assistant Donald Silmon, executive assistant Kelli Solomon, CPR Officer Todd Southerland, and CPR Executive Director Willie Watson.

There is also a group of community resources representatives from the mayor’s office who traveled to the 2017 Neighborhoods USA Conference in Omaha: Harold Houston, Herman Lumzy Jr., Melony Martin, Florencie Underwood Patton, Susan Palmer, Kathy Perdue, and Pamela Smith-Coulon.

Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin

“I absolutely believe that the public deserves an explanation about where (Mayor Bell) is going, when he’s going, who he’s talking to and all of that,” Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin said after Tuesday’s meeting. “Of the 4,798 employees that we have in the city, all of those, whenever they travel, it has to go on the council agenda. We know from that how much the hotels cost, how much money they’re spending. Everyone else is held to that process except for the mayor and I believe it leaves a lot of room for abuse. In the absence of accountability, there is no accountability.”

According to Austin, no one in the city knows where the mayor is going or how much he’s spending. “We have no idea how much he spends on a travel in a given year. They’ll give you concocted numbers. They’ll tell you he’s not staying in certain hotels when he is. We just don’t know,” Austin said.

Odom took issue with Austin’s allegations of opacity. “It is unfortunate that some in council leadership have chosen to toss out scurrilous and unfounded accusations rather than choosing to work collaboratively with the Mayor to make Birmingham the best it can be for all who live, work and play here,” she said in an email. “Questions about travel and expenses are easily answered through simple information requests. The policy that is currently in place has been used for years, predating this administration and follows state laws.

“In addition, the results of the Mayor’s travel and his work to promote the city of Birmingham are evident by the expansion of businesses, jobs and residents here, and a renewed national and international interest in our city. Imagine what more we could accomplish by joining together for the betterment of our entire city, rather than wasting time and resources on election-season pettiness.”

In spite of his criticisms of Bell’s travel, Austin was quick to praise the progress being made in Birmingham as a result of travel by City Council employees. Most notably, he said, was a trip to Switzerland in 2015 that secured Birmingham as the host city for the 2021 World Games and his role in that.

“The trips we take to places like Germany, London and Paris, to the airshows and all those things don’t necessarily yield immediate returns on investment like the World Games trip,” Austin said. “But we are now starting to see some returns as far as companies that are now choosing to make Birmingham their home. We continue to do that. We get criticized a lot by members of media who characterize these trips as boondoggles or whatever. The trips that I go on and trips I know some of my colleagues go on, I know the city definitely gets a return on their investment.”


Return on Investment

What these numerous trips yield for Birmingham and its citizens is not always easy to determine, especially when travelers such as Parker are less than forthcoming. April Odom, the director of public information for Bell’s office, gave brief characterizations of some of the trips’ impacts.

“The National Monument designation for the Civil Rights District is the biggest result” of mayoral staff meetings with the Department of the Interior, while meetings with the EPA “have brought in over $50 million in EPA funding to the area,” she said.

Regarding the Neighborhoods, USA Conference, which 16 city officials received funding to attend in 2017, Odom said that the city is preparing to host the conference itself next year, “securing at least a $5 million economic impact for the city.”

Mayor William Bell

The conference “is also very important to our community and neighborhood officers with many of them holding national office in the organization,” Odom continued. “The city of Birmingham has been a member of this organization since the development of the Citizen’s Participation Plan, which was in October of 1974.” Odom then pasted the Neighborhoods, USA mission statement into the body of her email, which reads: “NUSA provides opportunities for diverse people and organizations to share their ideas, values and experiences to build stronger communities.”

Other benefits from these travels come from the attraction of businesses, said Kirk Atkinson, whose company Adah is contracted by the city to work as an international business recruiter. Atkinson shed some light on the strategies used to bring companies to Birmingham.

In 2015 the city entered into an agreement to pay Adah $41,737 to provide professional consulting services to identify, target and develop relationships with European companies and multipliers at international trade shows and delegations. That contract is set to expire in October. On Sept. 27, 2016, the city entered into another contract with Adah for $150,000 for work that is to be completed by June 30, 2017. Atkinson first attended the Paris Airshow in 2015 with a delegation of city officials.

“There is a lot of industry history here but we’ve missed out on the advanced manufacturing revolution that’s going on right now,” Atkinson said. “We’re a little bit behind. Industry 4.0, we call it ‘smart factory,’ where the internet of things is introduced to manufacturing and jobs become less physical and more mental. You’re not standing on an assembly line all day, you’re programing the machine that does that now.”

Atkinson believes this is where Birmingham, as a city, could improve and recruit more major companies. While second and third tier suppliers may not be as “sexy as aerospace companies,” as Atkinson put it, recruiting these types of industry is where his firm focuses their efforts.

For companies like Airbus and Mercedes who have opened factories in the state, the majority of those parts they use are sourced from existing suppliers and brought here. As the local supply starts to grow then more of it is sourced locally, Atkinson explained. “This isn’t a two to three year thing. This is like 10-year thing to get the supplier status like we have with Mercedes and Airbus,” he said.

In terms of the political arguments made for building every part for a plane or a car in America, Atkinson said, “That ship has sailed. Everything is built all over the world in the global economy. Fifty percent of a Boeing plane is built in other countries and the same is true for Airbus.” As far as Birmingham’s role in that global market, Atkinson said the city needs to look down the supply chain and see what services can be provided. “One of the things we landed on is logistics,” he said.

While Atkinson was hesitant to speak to all the travel being done by city officials, he was able to talk about specific instances where trips he has taken have brought industry to the city. Those recruitment efforts have manifested in landing a German logistics company, Abat, at Innovation Depot. The company provides support to automotive companies like Mercedes and is expected to expand by 15 jobs over the next several years.

Atkinson said this is a direct result of meetings between Birmingham delegates and company officials. As he put it, “It’s much easier [for companies to sit down] with an elected official, especially Europeans. It’s a protocol thing. This is even more true in Germany. It’s such a structured culture. When you come to them and say the city council president or the mayor of a city wants to meet, they have to respond at least. We use that to our advantage.”


Most Expensive Single Trips

  1. Lisa Cooper, director of economic development, Mayor’s Office: $5,946.50 to attend the International Festival for Business in Liverpool, UK.
  2. Don Lupo, director of mayor’s office of citizen’s assistance: $5,704.02 to attend the World Heritage Convention United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization World Congress in Istanbul, Turkey.
  3. Lisa Cooper: $5,634.41 to attend the 39th Annual Joint Meeting of Southeast U.S.-Japan Association Meeting in Tokyo.
  4. Lisa Cooper: $4,870 “to participate in The International Business Recruitment” in Stuttgart, Bremen and Munich, Germany
  5. Jarvis Patton, chief of operations, Mayor’s Office: $4,172.64 “to present Behind the Ballot Exhibit/Democratic National Convention,” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  6. April Odom, director of public information, Mayor’s Office: $3,712.76 “to present Behind the Ballot Exhibit/Democratic National Convention,” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  7. Steven Hoyt, city councilor: $3,662.51 to attend the 2017 National Community Reinvestment Coalition Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.
  8. Donald Silmon, executive assistant, Mayor’s Office: $3,475.27 to attend the 2017 World Games in Wroclaw, Poland, in preparation for the 2021 World Games in Birmingham.
  9. William Parker, city councilor: $2,908.09 “to meet with federal officials in reference to the promotion of property redevelopment” in Washington, D.C.
  10. William Parker: $2,832 “to attend Environmental Protection Agency Meetings” in Washington, D.C.

BirminghamWatch and Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper collaborated to cover the Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.