Richmond city officials have turned their sister-city relations with communities in China, Japan and Cuba into travel junkets for the mayor, council members and city staff.
The international alliances between U.S. and foreign cities that date back to the Eisenhower administration can promote cultural exchanges and, in some cases, help establish business relations.
But, all too often, they turn into publicly funded vacations for elected officials and government employees.
That's what has happened in Richmond, where officials are spending about $50,000 at the same time that the city struggles to balance its books.
The price tag for the first trip, 15 days of travel in October to Zhoushan, China, and Shimada, Japan, totaled $36,120. The participants were Councilmen Nat Bates and Corky Boozé, Deputy Police Chief Edwin Medina, Port Director Jim Matzorkis and Port Operations Manager Lucy Zhou.
While there might have been legitimate reasons for the port officials to travel to Zhoushan to discuss potential port business, it's unclear what purpose was served with their participation in the rest of the trip. Sending the deputy chief was unjustified; surely that money could have been better used. And then there's the question of whether, during these tight financial times, two council members were needed to represent the city.
To make matters worse, half the trip was spent touring, at taxpayer expense, the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Xian, Suzhou and Beijing. While the travelers might have enjoyed their vacation, they should have paid for it. Then there were Boozé's $1,169 in additional charges, including $530 for laundry services and $473 to transport excess baggage. That's just beyond the pale.
Turn now to Cuba, where Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Councilman Tom Butt, mayor's aide Nicole Valentino and council liaison Trina Jackson are currently on an 11-day, travel tour, budgeted at $13,000, that includes the sister city of Regla.
Like the Asia trip, half the Cuba itinerary includes travel well beyond the partner community.
To his credit, Butt said he would pay his own way. As for the others, the reasoning for bringing the two aides eludes us. And there's no good reason why the city should pay for the touring portion of the trip for the mayor and aides.
Richmond officials are certainly not unique in their sister-city travel. Such trips have become ubiquitous. Indeed, there is a sense of entitlement that permeates local government officials.
It's time to rein it in. Elected officials must remember that they're chosen to manage the public's money, not to use it as their personal travel budget.