Denver council members could start reporting details of goodies and air travel from city agencies

A plane flies, Dec. 12, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A plane flies, Dec. 12, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Denver City Council members on Tuesday took up a long-running debate about how they should handle gifts, goodies and trips that are funded by city agencies.

The conversation was a bit comical, with a lot of discussion of the red holiday flowers that appear in the council chambers each holiday season. But it was rooted in deeper concerns, especially about reports of thousands of dollars of flights provided to council members for work trips.

In response, Councilman Kevin Flynn proposes that elected officials could start publishing regular reports on the taxpayer-funded travel and items that they accept, whether it’s a research trip to Panama or a nice jacket from the airport.

Hey, here’s some context.

In many cases, city officials aren’t allowed to accept valuable gifts from outside groups. The idea is that they could be influenced to treat someone favorably. So, could a council member be swayed by a set of agency-branded gear? Should those rules apply to goods from city agencies, too?

The city’s board of ethics thinks so. In an opinion issued last year, the board advised that council members couldn’t accept items worth more than $25 from the city agencies they oversee.

But city council members argue that wouldn’t really work

Flynn said that it would create a “limitless rabbit hole.” It could affect employees in routine business, and the ethics rules weren’t meant to cover relationships within the city, he said.

Under his new proposal, city officials could still accept stuff and services from city agencies, whether it’s poinsettia flowers, commemorative gear or air travel — but they would have to publicize it in a semi-annual report.

He said that cases of improper behavior, where an official might wrongfully demand goods and services from the city, would be covered by embezzlement and other laws.

But Amanda Gonzales, the executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said that her group is “concerned about the impacts these gifts could have on resource allocation or decision making by the city.”

On the other hand, Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman worried about how council members would decide what to report, but Flynn said the proposal would include rules and details about what to include in the reports.

Councilman Paul López said the council was “overthinking” the thing. “I have 99 problems, but (city-branded) socks ain’t one,” he said. Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore asked whether new reporting would make it harder to take reasonable trips due to public outrage.

What about those airline flights?

Colorado Public Radio reported last month on the money city agencies have spent to send elected officials abroad on research and business trips, including a $16,000-per-person trip to Dubai.

Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech said that this new proposal would and should allow council members to keep on making reasonable work trips, citing examples like domestic trips to see jails and bike lanes.

“ … It’s not good for the people we represent, to prohibit learning by travel,” said Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech.

But she acknowledged that there was community “discomfort” about the level of spending on some flights. And the answer to that, she said, would be the new reporting requirements.

“Extravagance is a different issue,” she said. “ … If extravagance is the issue, let’s go after that. If influence is the issue, sunshine is the answer.”

Currently, domestic flights are generally flown coach, while business class is allowed for eight-hour journeys with at least one five-hour leg, Flynn said.

Reporting the details of that travel could alleviate many people’s concerns, Kniech said, or allow them to question the city’s spending.

The proposal heads for a first reading at Denver City Council next week.

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