Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin (Ray Chavez/Staff file)
CORRECTION (Published 1/7/2014)

A story incorrectly reported the cost to taxpayers for a trip to China taken by two Richmond councilmen, Nat Bates and Corky Booze and three city staff members. The cost for each was $6,020, according to city officials, not $5,760. The story, an editorial and Eye on the East Bay column overstated the amount of money Booze charged to his city credit card for additional expenses on the trip. Those expenses were $340, not $1,169. That included $94 for laundry service, not $530, and $80 for excess baggage fees, not $473.

RICHMOND -- At a time when the city is struggling to balance its budget, local taxpayers have sent elected officials and city staff to China and Cuba in recent weeks on trips that have included significant sightseeing activities in addition to forging diplomatic links with sister cities.

Richmond Councilmember Courtland "Corky" Boozé
Richmond Councilmember Courtland "Corky" Boozé (Ray Chavez/Staff file)

A five-member delegation, including Councilmen Nat Bates and Corky Boozé, embarked on a 15-day sister-city trip to China and Japan last month paid for to the tune of $36,120 by Richmond taxpayers.

The rub, critics said, was not just the total expense, but that the amounts exceeded the $5,000 annual travel allotment for each council member and that most of the trip was not spent at the Chinese sister city, Zhoushan, but crisscrossing the country enjoying the historic and cultural sites.

In addition, the total price tag for the trip was approved by the City Council in October with no discussion about the extra tourist perks it would be funding. The unanimous approval came three months after city finance officials cut the delegation a check to make the travel arrangements, a retroactive approval prohibited by the city charter.

Some of the most pointed critics of the trip are Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilman Tom Butt, longtime rivals of Bates and Boozé who embarked on their own trip to Cuba this week. Both said it was inexcusable for their colleagues to exceed their annual travel budgets.

"I am concerned," McLaughlin said. "Council members should not be utilizing city funds outside of their travel budgets for trips, and city funds should not be used for sightseeing engagements."

Richmond City Councilmember Nat Bates
Richmond City Councilmember Nat Bates (Bob Larson/Staff file)

On Thursday, Butt and McLaughlin departed, along with two other city staff members, for a trip to Richmond's sister city in Cuba, Regla, for a council-approved price of $13,000. Butt said he would self-finance his portion of the trip.

Jeff Shoji, community advocate in the Mayor's Office, said McLaughlin's share of the trip cost $4,222.

The itinerary for the 11-day trip includes days of cultural excursions and museum visits, including a stop at the Che Guevara Memorial and Monument.

The trips, while constituting a sliver of Richmond's $140 million general fund budget, come amid a series of grim financial assessments over the summer that required the city to dip into its reserve to close a multimillion-dollar deficit.

City Manager Bill Lindsay said the payment for the China trip should not have been made before City Council approval.

"We need to shore that up," he said.

The trip was marred by overcharges and process breakdowns.

Boozé and Bates' share of the trip was $6,020 each, according to city records, exceeding the annual $5,000 travel allowance. Boozé used his city credit card on the trip to tack on $340 in additional charges, including $94 for laundry services and $80 to transport excess baggage.

The extra charges will be picked up by the Richmond port's budget, Lindsay said, which is also funded by local taxpayers.

Boozé could not be reached for comment. Bates defended the charges, noting that city leaders had a joint mission -- building their sister city relationships and nurturing ties with Chinese business interests that may be potential port customers.

Because of that, Bates said, it was appropriate to max out the annual allowance and have the excess charges paid for the by the port.

"We're out there negotiating deals that can benefit the city to the tune of several millions," Bates said. "To make money, you have to spend money."

Bates said the costs and cultural itinerary of the Cuba trip did not bother him.

"I don't have a problem with it, it's part of our sister city program in a global world," Bates said. "But if you live in a glass house, don't throw rocks."

Lindsay said he recently met with City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller and Finance Director James Goins to discuss the China trip, the retroactive council approval of its cost and the city's travel policies.

"We have some matters and guidelines to review, and we may come back to the council with some recommended modifications," Lindsay said.

The China trip has also cast new light on the Richmond port, which is owned by the city and has seen growth in imports in recent years. A 2011 audit concluded that the port's financial record-keeping was rife with errors and recommended more stringent outside review.

Among the documents obtained through a public records request are receipts indicating port officials bought about $50 worth of wine for a meeting with Chinese officials in Richmond earlier this year, and contracts totaling nearly $20,000 for services provided by Boozé's son, Kevin. City policy prohibits using any taxpayer funds on alcohol.

Lindsay said he was unaware of the alcohol purchase but said he would investigate.

An earlier version of this story on Corky Booze's travel expenses has been corrected. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.