Less than two months on the job, District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton traveled to his former home of Minneapolis, billing Odessa taxpayers about $2,102 for flights, a hotel stay and a rental car.
The ostensible purpose of the 12-day trip, where Hamilton was briefly accompanied by a top city official, was to study the Minneapolis downtown.
But Hamilton refuses to discuss the trip, leaving the questions unanswered of what city business he actually conducted. Then there is the question of whether the new councilman fleeced taxpayers by expensing a vacation to the metropolis where he still has family.
And another: What does Minneapolis, Minn., — a Midwestern economic hub of more than 400,000 people with a downtown that bustles after decades of investment and a name that literally means “water city” — have to do with redeveloping the City of Odessa’s long blighted downtown in the West Texas desert?
City officials say they do not know what Hamilton did beyond a single meeting that lasted just over an hour during those 12 days. No one asked him to justify the trip, including fellow council member Barbara Graff, who signed off on his expenses.
“Honestly, he is going to be the one that needs to speak about it,” Mayor David Turner said. “We need to be responsible for taxpayer money, and we need to be accountable for it. If we go on a trip, we need to be able to say why we went on it.”
Turner said he had not spoken with Hamilton about the trip, and like other top city officials, knew of no recommendations, reports, feedback or other material outcomes of the councilman’s visit. The mayor said he planned to “look into” the expensed trip this week after he returns from vacation.
In the meantime, the city has only one record that shows Hamilton actually conducting city business — a brief meeting with the president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council on one day of the trip.
But Hamilton’s trip to Minneapolis spanned from Jan. 20 to Jan. 31. During that time, he also missed a City Council meeting.
City Attorney Larry Long accompanied Hamilton for that brief meeting with downtown Minneapolis official Steve Cramer on Jan. 23.
It was Long’s only full-day in Minneapolis, and it was sandwiched between two travel days. Taxpayers paid $1,455.85 for Long’s trip, including two nights in a hotel, travel and meals including a lunch and dinner with Hamilton.
Not much came of the meeting, Long said. Same goes for their several-hour walk around Minneapolis’ downtown on the same day.
“They are just a different type of society up there,” Long said. “They are just different. The things that went there would not go here. They just wouldn’t.”
Hamilton and Long wanted to learn about the Minneapolis Skyway System, which connects downtown buildings with miles of pedestrian footbridges, Long said. Turns out, those are built by private businesses without the sort of incentives, zoning rules or other methods Odessa might copy, Long said.
“And not only that, there was a lot of expense to them too,” Long said, adding that the skywalks would likely prove a burden to developers that Odessa officials want to draw downtown.
Long acknowledged in an interview that he could have probably learned that information from his desk in Odessa.
Accounting just for his full day in Minneapolis, Long said “we aren’t going to be able to adopt much from it, but it wasn’t a waste of time to find out.”
The meeting lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, Long said.
Cramer confirmed the meeting and that he discussed a range of projects like downtown residential development with different funding packages.
“I think the challenge of going around and seeing what other people are doing is the local circumstances really dictate what is possible,” Cramer said. “We have one set of circumstances up here and you have another set of circumstances down there. It’s not always easy to transfer from one place to another.”
Apart from the skyway idea — explored at a time when Odessa officials are finalizing plans for a $77 million hotel and conference center and when the city has already paid Texas contractors to help plan the downtown development — Long said he walked away from the meeting with some ideas about ways to encourage pedestrian traffic in downtown Odessa like the city’s downtown master plan calls for.
District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner said that “out of courtesy,” Hamilton should have briefed the rest of the council about the trip and its outcomes. But Gardner says that he had not seen any expenses and that he still does not know what Hamilton did in Minneapolis.
“I know that the council has never been briefed on the trip,” Gardner said. “Malcolm has never come to the council and said ‘Hey, I’m thinking about going on this trip,’ and (said) for what reason. And we’ve never been briefed on the outcome of the trip or what the findings of the trip were. That’s all I know about it.”
OVERSIGHT LACKING: ‘I JUST SIGNED OFF ON IT’
City records show Hamilton’s expense of $2,102.03 covered plane tickets including a charge for a six-day extension to his trip, a five-day car rental and a three-night hotel stay at a hotel connected to the Mall of America, more than 10 miles away from Minneapolis’ downtown.
Per normal practice, City Secretary Norma Grimaldo made Hamilton’s arrangements for him at his request and paid up front with a city credit card, meaning Hamilton never asked to be personally reimbursed for expenses. The councilman did not turn in any restaurant receipts — and in fact, no records documenting anything after Jan. 25.
Hamilton had returned his $415.44 rental car on that day and was initially scheduled to fly back to West Texas that day. But at a cost of $310.04, Hamilton delayed his return flight to Jan. 31, a six-day extension.
The city secretary said she told Hamilton ahead of his trip, as she would normally do, that city policy only allows coverage of expenses related to city business. That 20-year-old policy does not allow City Council members to pay for personal business on the taxpayers’ tab.
Grimaldo said she did not ask Hamilton why he needed to extend his trip or the city business he would conduct and still didn’t know the answers to those questions.
But Grimaldo’s job requirements do not call on her to seek such justifications.
Instead, the city’s travel policy assigns other layers of responsibility for reviewing officials’ expenses. Not all of them were followed.
First, the policy assigns responsibility to officials requesting city travel payments as “stewards of public funds.”
The policy says officials who want to travel at the city’s expense for a purpose including “any type of meeting” must first get approval in advance from the city’s finance committee and provide a program or other supporting data with their request.
“Officials should plan all travel and feel that the benefits gained justify the cost,” the policy states.
Officials must fill out an expense report that is then authorized by another party. In Long’s case, that was City Manager Richard Morton. In the case of a councilman like Hamilton, that authorization falls on a member of the city’s finance committee — District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant or District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff.
Graff, who signed Hamilton’s form on Feb. 14, said she believed he was studying a youth program because he had mentioned one during a city meeting.
Actually, Hamilton wrote “Minnesota Downtown Mtg.” on his form as the reason for his trip. But Graff said she did not review it before authorizing the payment or ask Hamilton about the business justifying the expense.
“I just signed off on it,” Graff said. “I didn’t read it.”
Graff provided evolving explanations for why she didn’t read the form, when city rules say the finance committee member “shall closely review” such reports before signing them for proper accounting and documentation of expenses, along with any necessary supporting documents or explanations.
First, on Wednesday, she said “I probably should have reviewed it more” but didn’t think Hamilton would do anything wrong and was more interested in the meeting she was in when Grimaldo presented her the form. At the same time, she said “if there is something wrong, I do know this: that Finance will bounce it back. So it’s not my job to tell somebody this or that.”
But the finance department is not charged with authorizing a council member’s travel expenses. In this case, that responsibility fell to Graff.
On Thursday, Graff said she should not have asked Hamilton what city business justified his trip “because I don’t think anybody who has ever signed off on one of those has done that.”
Ultimately, she said she planned to review officials’ expense reports more closely before authorizing them.
“I guess in the future I certainly will, but it’s not my job to know exactly what somebody does,” Graff said. “My thing is, I’m signing off on these things and it goes on to finance and they make the decision.”
That’s not how it works, per city policy.
But the next layer of review for city officials’ travel expenses is indeed the city’s finance director. The city travel policy tasks the finance director only with examining the travel reports and supporting documents for accuracy and to make sure money is available.
As of Friday, the finance department’s accounting staff reviewed Hamilton’s expense report “without issue,” but the document awaited final review from the finance director, who was out of town, Morton said.
The policy also authorizes the finance director “to request and to receive additional information on any and all expenses.” But Morton said the finance director usually just verifies receipts if another council member has already signed off on a report.
“The finance director is not going to get into the justification of the trip,” Morton said. “The finance director is just looking at any receipts turned in are expenses properly accounted for and that type of thing.”
Hamilton, a former pro football player, moved to Odessa more than three years ago from Minneapolis to work in business.
On Feb. 2, when asked where he had been during a City Council meeting the previous week, Hamilton declined to say where he was.
This week, Hamilton refused requests by the Odessa American for an interview about his trip to Minneapolis unless he could review questions in advance. The newspaper declined.
“Funny,” Hamilton replied in a text message. “Go talk to Larry Long.”
Long says he does not know what Hamilton did during the remainder of his trip or if it included legitimate city business.
“But I really haven’t had that much of a chance to talk to him,” Long said on Tuesday, 21 days after Malcolm returned from the trip.
Normally, Long said he would not go on a trip like this but Downtown Odessa Director Gloria Salinas had resigned for a job in Dallas. Long said he does not like to travel and he hates the cold but did not want to leave a city council member representing the city to other government officials alone. Long also said he did want to leave Hamilton unprepared to discuss details of the city’s downtown incentives and programs having served such a short time on the council.
“Generally if we are going to have one of our council members go to another city and interview with someone from there in an official capacity we would like to be around to know what’s said and what’s asked,” Long said.
In hindsight, Long said, visiting a Texas city instead of Minneapolis might have been better “because the method of financing and achieving what they were doing I don’t feel like translates well to Texas.”
Hamilton had a chance to apply whatever he gleaned from his 12-day trip about a week after his return, when the City Council gathered for a routine briefing session to discuss work and plans of the city staff.
They were scheduled to discuss city plans for Odessa’s downtown, including developing residential housing and retail stores. But Hamilton objected to the discussion, arguing to postpone it until he could do his own research.
“I’d like to take a look at this, I’d like to have my own input in this, because this is my district,” Hamilton said. “I have not had that opportunity. So what I’m saying is, let’s table this until I have a chance to look at this.”
Council members were never scheduled to vote — it was just a planning session.
After a few appeals, council members relented to Hamilton’s opposition and delayed the discussion until Tuesday, a meeting that Hamilton missed.
But first, District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales asked Hamilton about the discussion he declined to hear: “What are you going to research? Because I would like to get my hands on it too. I don’t know what you would be able to get.”
“Uh, Google,” Hamilton said, with a laugh.