HERMOSA BEACH — City Councilman George Barks acknowledged this week that he collected more than $600 in "arrangement costs" for an official city visit last month to Loreto, Mexico.
Barks, who acts as the City Council's liaison with its Mexican sister city, said in an interview that he collected $10 per person from at least 62 people as an organizational fee for the trip. The city paid Barks $30 in arrangement costs for three Councilmen--including Barks himself--who traveled to Loreto at the city's expense. Mayor Jack Wood and Councilman Gary Brutsch paid for their own trips.
Barks said there was nothing inappropriate about collecting the fee, which was designated on a flyer about the trip as an "arrangement cost." But on Monday, Barks wrote a check for $70 to the city to cover the $30 as well as a total of $40 he had collected in 1983 and 1984 from the city for previous trips he arranged to Loreto.
Barks said he decided to repay the city in order to head off the appearance that he gained financially when he voted to designate the trips as official city business. Barks said efforts to reach City Atty. James Lough to get an opinion about the matter have been unsuccessful. City officials said Lough has been out sick all week.
"It will take at least a week to find out from the city attorney if it was a permissible appropriation," Barks said. "Even if it was, I will donate the money to the city's coffers."
Barks was in Loreto in November when the council approved payment of $992.94 to the "Loreto Visit" fund, which was administered by Barks, to cover the travel costs for Barks, Brutsch and Councilmen Tony DeBellis and John Cioffi. Brutsch later decided to reimburse the city for his share of the payment.
But Barks was present at the council meeting on Sept. 24, when the council, over Wood's objection, authorized the official city visit to Loreto. Barks voted with the majority, according to City Clerk Kathleen Reviczky.
In an interview this week, Brutsch criticized Barks for not making it clear to travelers that they were paying him to arrange their trips.
"I think he had the responsibility to specifically articulate what the administrative fee was to be used for," Brutsch said. "I don't think anybody knew they were paying it to George. . . . It just looks like you are trying to get something for nothing."
While Barks acknowledged this week that perhaps he should have abstained from the September vote and others in 1983 and 1984, he defended his decision to collect an organizational fee. Barks, who is unemployed, said half of the money was needed for phone calls to Loreto to arrange for hotel reservations and the other half covered the time he spent organizing the trips.
"I see this as an attempt by people who can't support me politically to try and make an issue," Barks said. Referring to Mayor Wood, he added: "This is strictly a political issue because Jack has been getting some not-so-favorable publicity on the insurance issue. Some of his supporters are saying, 'So, what can we get on George?' "
Last week, Barks led an unsuccessful effort to oust Wood after the city released documents showing that Wood provided false information on a city health insurance form last year in order to qualify his girlfriend for coverage. Wood removed his girlfriend from the program in March after three months of coverage.
Wood and Barks, who have been at odds on the council since Wood was elected in 1982, have announced that they will seek reelection in April. Barks is seeking his fourth term on the council.
Civic activist Roger Creighton, who sued the city to get a copy of Wood's health insurance form, said this week that he has delivered a written request to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for an investigation of Wood and a former city employee whom Creighton also suspects of listing an ineligible dependent on insurance forms.
In an interview this week, Wood took a decidedly neutral stance on Barks' decision to collect an organizational fee for the Loreto trips. He denied that his campaign staff set out to make an issue of the fee.
"I guess the question is whether or not it is propitious for Mr. Barks to vote on the expenditure when the expenditure was partially to pay himself," Wood said. "The legality of it is up to the lawyers, and the morality of it is up to the voters."
Barks said he first heard about the problem last week from City Manager Gregory Meyer, who had been questioned about the fee by Creighton. Barks said Creighton contacted him on Sunday with questions about the trips.
Creighton said that he went to City Hall with questions about the organizational fees after several residents contacted him about the trips. He said that when City Atty. Lough returns, he will request that the city look into sister-city records and see if organizational fees have been charged by other trip organizers in the past.