Months after the travel of Bellevue's then-police chief, John Stacey, raised questions, Nebraska's third-largest city is considering limiting out-of-town trips for staff.
The Bellevue City Council will consider a new travel policy for city employees when it meets today. Under the proposal, the city would not pay for more than four trips per employee for conferences, training or other city business during a budget cycle.
Some council members say more safeguards are needed to prevent staff from misusing city resources by attending seminars and conferences that may be unnecessary.
However, Bellevue City Administrator Dan Berlowitz said limiting it to four trips, particularly for department heads, might be overrestrictive.
Berlowitz and his assistant city administrator, who has yet to be hired, would be exempt from the policy.
Berlowitz said the new travel policy appears to be an overreaction to the recent controversy surrounding Stacey and fired Gretna City Administrator Colleen Lawry.
“The City of Bellevue wants to be accountable and use city tax dollars wisely, but we already have a very rigorous (travel) policy,” Berlowitz said. “We pretty much had a sound system before this. We are not wasting money that way.”
In May, Berlowitz put Stacey on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation. Stacey resigned weeks later.
The World-Herald reported in May that Stacey and Lawry took trips that overlapped in four cities around the country between last August and January, racking up thousands of dollars in bills charged to taxpayers. Bellevue records showed that Stacey took 16 out-of-town trips at various police and fire conferences since 2010.
Berlowitz said the number of Stacey's trips was “an anomaly” partly because he had dual roles in the Police and Fire Departments. All of Stacey's trips were approved by staff and had proper paperwork and justification. The city uncovered no evidence the former police chief misused city credit cards, Berlowitz said.
Lawry has pleaded not guilty to a felony theft charge of misusing about $1,000 from a Gretna senior citizens fund. She was also charged with a misdemeanor after allegedly failing to register a firearm she received from Stacey.
“Unfortunately, the whole situation with Gretna and our former police chief, that got a lot of high-profile attention. ... And we're almost going too far the other direction,” Berlowitz said.
Bellevue Councilman Don Preister said he pushed for the new travel policy partly because of Stacey's situation.
“It raises the question for me, ‘Does the city benefit from the number of times he was away, or was somebody else benefiting at the expense of the Bellevue taxpayers?'” Preister said. “We need to have some control over how many times people are away from their work stations.”
Preister also plans to offer an amendment to include both city managers under the revised travel policy. If the two city managers wanted to attend more than four out-of-town conferences, they could ask the council for permission, Preister said.
Councilwoman Carol Blood agreed.
“Whoever is our city administrator needs to set an example for the rest of the staff,” Blood said.
During the past year, Berlowitz said he has attended at least a half dozen out-of-town professional conferences, mainly in Kearney and Grand Island. He also attends one out-of-state conference per year related to his affiliation with the International City/County Management Association.
“The nature of the position, I am pretty much the lead person representing the City of Bellevue,” he said. “My position requires me to be out of town for a lot of city purposes. It's not to learn how to run a piece of equipment.”
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