Oro Valley Councilman Mike Zinkin is looking to clear his name after comments made earlier this month by Mayor Satish Hiremath regarding the councilman’s town-funded trip to the Congressional City Conference for the National League of Cities in Washington D.C.
The conference brings together 2,000 elected and appointed city leaders to focus on federal policy issues that are important to local government, such as public safety, immigration reform, federal tax code, and federal job creation.
In a recent council meeting, Zinkin was exploring potential budget cuts to the police department and town employees’ health benefits when Hiremath mentioned Zinkin’s trip expenses and an alleged lack of a proper trip report.
“Your trip to Washington D.C. – you spent over $2,000, and your trip report was the agenda for the meeting,” said Hiremath. “It’s very difficult for me, on behalf of the employees, to hear you talk about fiscal responsibility, and yet the irony of it is that your actions don’t really connotate that.”
Zinkin pointed out that prior to the trip, he expressed concerns to a member of staff regarding the expenses.
That email was addressed to Kevin Burke, assistant to the town manager.
“I have been really torn and conflicted about my appointment to the League’s Committee on Community and Economic Policy and Advocacy,” Zinkin said in Feb. 5 email. “On one hand I guess I should be honored to be selected, on the other hand, it is a lot of money ($3,000) to go to DC and another meeting in the winter in Seattle.
“There are going to be people who will shout ‘What is Oro Valley getting for the $3,000 they are spending to send Zinkin to D.C.?’”
Prior to the trip, Zinkin spoke with Ken Strobeck, from the League, who said benefits from the trip would include the opportunity to learn from elected officials from around the country, and would allow Oro Valley’s voice to be heard at a national level.
Burke’s response indicated the trip and its expenses were nothing out of the ordinary from the town’s usual practices.
“Historically, NLC participation has been a positive way for the town to contribute to the national dialogue regarding municipal governance,” said Burke. “Participation in this organization is a legitimate use of council travel and training funds and has not raised concerns from the community in the past.”
The town estimated the trip would cost $2,679.50. Zinkin spent a total of $2,484.10. He spent less than the town’s estimated cost in each category, including airfare and baggage, private vehicle usage, meals and incidentals, and lodging.
“I was concerned about the costs of the trip, and I looked for ways to reduce those costs,” said Zinkin in a follow-up interview. “I even took my own time to find a cheaper airline ticket and explore other cost reductions. It was an unfair accusation.”
Hiremath said he has no quarrel with Zinkin participating in the trip, but took issue with the councilman’s trip report when considering the amount of expenses incurred.
“I don’t want to give the illusion that we don’t have a stipend to travel, we all have the right to travel,” he said. “My only point was he didn’t lend any credence to his travel. All he submitted was an agenda.”
Hiremath said when fellow council members Lou Waters and Joe Hornat traveled to meeting in San Diego for a Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, they filed a far more in-depth report.
Even so, Hornat defended Zinkin’s Washington D.C. trip report during the council meeting.
“His trip report is the same trip report that I would turn in if I was doing that, (which) is the agenda,” said Hornat. “We’ve seen that before. There isn’t any reason for someone to write a dissertation unless somebody’s got questions.”
Hiremath maintains the issue comes down to the trip’s cost versus results produced, which he paralleled to Zinkin examining budget cuts that could affect town employees.
“The only point I was making was that he prides himself on being fiscally responsible, yet he can take a trip like that, which he has a right to do, but in the eyes of the employees, given what he produced, they might say, ‘What was the point of that?’”
Zinkin argues he came away from the trip with tangible benefits to the town, while also lowering costs on behalf of the taxpayers.