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Getting away 

No work was documented during a lavish Atascadero getaway at taxpayers' expense

click to enlarge LIVIN’ IT UP :  Atascadero City Manager Wade McKinney and Assistant City Manager Jim Lewis shared a cottage at Carmel Valley Lodge during a strategic planning retreat. Eight other city employees had their own rooms. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CARMEL VALLEY LODGE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CARMEL VALLEY LODGE
  • LIVIN’ IT UP : Atascadero City Manager Wade McKinney and Assistant City Manager Jim Lewis shared a cottage at Carmel Valley Lodge during a strategic planning retreat. Eight other city employees had their own rooms.

Two-night stay at Carmel Valley Lodge: $2,638.98.
  
Dinner out: $444.54.

Groceries: $337.66.

Not having to write anything down: priceless.

Before Atascadero city officials began chopping the city’s budget to make ends meet, they fled to the hills outside Monterey to plan the city’s future.

Bureaucrats typically have an ingrained paper fetish; they’re supposed to let people know what’s being done with the public’s money. But after two days in plush hotel rooms overlooking Carmel Valley on the taxpayers’ tab, a roomful of Atascadero officials produced nothing in writing. Or, if they did, so far they’re not telling anyone.

From Feb. 25 to 27, 10 city workers—who varied from department heads to assistants—stayed at the Carmel Valley Lodge in Monterey County. Each had their own room in the self-described country retreat, with the exception of City Manager Wade McKinney and his assistant Jim Lewis, but they shared a cottage at twice the price.

They bought food at the Atascadero Albertson’s, but also spent a night out at a Carmel Valley restaurant, according to city documents. The one expense, it seems, that wasn’t incurred was for ink and paper. After two overnight stays at a lodge with a built-in conference room, those 10 people at the retreat produced no documents about what they had discussed or accomplished.

And they didn’t want to talk about what they didn’t write down. New Times calls and e-mails for comment were not returned.

Former mayor Mike Brennler didn’t have much better success.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF CARMEL VALLEY LODGE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CARMEL VALLEY LODGE
City Clerk Marcia Torgerson responded via e-mail to a request by Brennler for documentation about the trip.

“There were no documents generated at the Management Team Workshop in Carmel Valley in 2009,” she wrote.

Torgerson, who is also the assistant to the city manager, went on the retreat. She attended along with Lewis, the assistant city manager; and McKinney, the actual city manager. Director of Administrative Services Rachelle Rickard also went, making nearly half of the attendants administrative employees.

Brennler reiterated his questions about the lack of documents before the Atascadero City Council on May 26. Once again, the response was scant. McKinney responded, but skirted the main issue.

“I know Mr. Brennler made a request and the city responded to it,” McKinney said at the meeting. “So there has been a response to his request.”

Councilman Bob Kelly added he was satisfied with the accounting of the expenses and the issue was dead. Later, Councilman Tom O’Malley said he believed “the foundation” of many cost-saving ideas and budget solutions was laid out during the trip. O’Malley didn’t say specifically what was discussed.

In total, the trip cost taxpayers $3,580 to cover lodging, meals, and transportation. They were given a group discount rate on rooms, according to a lodge manager. However, each room still cost $119 per night, aside from the cottage shared by McKinney and Lewis, which cost $238 per night.

- WHO WAS THERE:  Wade McKinney, Jim Lewis, Marcia Torgerson, Rachelle Rickard, Brian Pierik, Brady Cherry, Russ Thompson, Warren Frace, Jim Mulhall, and Kurt Stone. -
  • WHO WAS THERE: Wade McKinney, Jim Lewis, Marcia Torgerson, Rachelle Rickard, Brian Pierik, Brady Cherry, Russ Thompson, Warren Frace, Jim Mulhall, and Kurt Stone.
It’s not unusual in Atascadero for city officials to write about what they did on a trip. Lewis made a four-day trip to Washington, D.C., which only cost $2,023.99 (Lewis stayed with a friend and borrowed their car to cut costs). Unlike Carmel Valley, Lewis documented his stay. On the day he got back, Lewis wrote a letter to McKinney explaining what he had done and the networking benefits his trip provided the city.

The purpose behind the Carmel Valley outing was more mysterious. The day before leaving, McKinney sent a citywide e-mail informing employees of the looming expense reductions. They were told about potential voluntary ways to patch the budget, which included early resignation incentives, time off, and hour reductions. The day of the trip, he sent another e-mail with more cost-cutting tips.

Eight people who went on the retreat were also members of a city budget work group, which was formed to discuss budget issues and solutions. Public Works Director Russ Thompson and City Attorney Brian Pierik were the only people who went on the trip but were not part of the budget group. Pierik, who is not a full-time city employee, was also the only person who offered to reimburse the city for his trip, according to a city billing report.

On April 28, McKinney got permission from City Council members to make cuts. A day later he eliminated seven vacant positions and laid off eight people. Everything was documented.

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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