Two Arlington County officials are defending using taxpayer funds to attend a national conference in Hawaii, saying that avoiding the tropical locale would discourage their counterparts from visiting the Washington region.
The National Association of Counties (NACO) is hosting its annual conference in Honolulu. It begins today and ends Tuesday.
“NACO has a conference each year, I didn’t select the place,” said Arlington County Board member Barbara A. Favola, who is one of the county officials traveling to Honolulu. “We are going to want people from Hawaii and California to travel here when it’s our turn.”
J. Walter Tejada, an Arlington County Board member, is joining Mrs. Favola at the conference.
Some taxpayers across the region pressured county representatives in Virginia and elsewhere to back out of the conference. Some counties in Virginia and those in other states have scrapped plans to attend the conference because of the travel costs.
“As someone in a leadership position, not going to the conference would be a terrible precedent to set,” said Mrs. Favola, a Democrat.
Timothy M. Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, disagreed. “It’s not the amount of money as much as it’s the perception that it shows when property taxes have gone up. They should not take advantage of taxpayers in this way by going to Hawaii,” he said.
Mr. Tejada said his $667 plane ticket is a minimal price compared to the benefit he will reap learning from his colleagues at the conference.
“If it were in Philadelphia or Topeka, Kansas, I would be going. This is business,” he said. “This is the taxpayers who are paying for it but really it’s important we go to learn the best practices used elsewhere.”
Mrs. Favola, who is chairman of a NACO subcommittee on human services and education, said Arlington will pay for her $900 plane ticket and for a 5-night hotel stay.
After the conference ends, Mrs. Favola will stay 10 more days in Hawaii, at her own expense, to vacation with her family.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly also is attending the conference. Mr. Connolly, a Democrat, is chairman of Virginia Association of Counties (VACO), which will be paying for his expenses.
His colleagues, Supervisors Penelope A. Gross, Mason District Democrat, and Gerald W. Hyland, Mount Vernon District Democrat, also will attend.
So far, the county has only paid for their conference registration fees which amounted to several hundred dollars, said Merni Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County.
Miss Fitzgerald said so far, there have been no other requests from Mrs. Gross or Mr. Hyland for reimbursement for the trip.
Any expenses the supervisors submit must fall under the county’s travel policy guidelines, which state they must ensure their travel expenses are “reasonable and necessary” and that they can be reimbursed for meals up to $46 per day.
The policy also notes officials must seek “economical means to minimize travel costs” and must submit a report and detailed receipts of expenses within five business days of completion of the trip.
“At this point nothing has been requested from the county,” Miss Fitzgerald said. “It’s clearly being picked up by someone other than the county. Any future costs would be according to the travel policy.”
Officials from Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard counties in Maryland also are traveling to Hawaii to attend the conference. A complete list of Maryland counties was not available yesterday, and it is not clear which counties are using taxpayer dollars to send their representatives to Honolulu.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams also is going to the conference to represent the District.
The conference is held at a different location each year. In the past, it has taken place in Phoenix, Milwaukee and New Orleans. In 2007, the annual meeting will be held in Richmond.
Air fares from the East Coast to Hawaii can cost from $600 to $1,600. Room rates at the five Waikiki hotels listed for convention attendees range from $179 to $295 a night.
Some counties have reported costs of up to $10,000 to send a few of their government officials to Honolulu.
When Nelson County, Va., supervisors learned of the potential cost, they scrapped plans to attend the conference, joining counterparts in Alabama, Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Convention organizers mindful of the perception that county officials are traveling to an exotic locale have armed attendees with an unprecedented list of “helpful reminders” they can use to counter negative publicity about the trip.
Conference attendees also can participate in a variety of tourist activities — ranging from cruises to luaus — for an additional cost.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.