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Lakewood Taxpayers Often Picked Up Tab for Council Spouses' Travel

May 17, 1987|RITA PYRILLIS and WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writers

LAKEWOOD — Did city taxpayers pick up the tab for Patricia Zeltner's air fare last summer when she and her husband traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the U.S. Conference of Mayors?

City administrators say no.

But her husband, Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner--at that time a Lakewood council member--says yes, even noting that a special discount reduced it to $138, less than one-fourth of the $554 that taxpayers spent on his.

All Patricia Zeltner remembers is that she had a good time.

"We went to museums, shopping, a lot of receptions and dinners," she said recently. Over the 4 1/2 days, she attended "one or two" conference sessions, but otherwise stuck with the tour groups. "I'm not politically active," she explained. "I do wifely things."

City administrators shrug off the discrepancy, saying it doesn't matter if Patricia Zeltner's air fare did come out of Lakewood coffers. Although a 1985 City Council policy prohibits "officers or employees" from traveling with spouses at taxpayer expense, the mayor and four council members have made themselves exempt.

"Our policy," Assistant City Administrator Michael W. Stover confirmed, "is such that each council member decides whether or not each spousal travel is reimbursable."

And so it is that Zeltner and several Lakewood council members have billed the city for the companionship of their spouses on trips to Anchorage, Seattle, Sacramento, Monterey and elsewhere--at least a dozen times over the past two complete fiscal years, according to city records.

They have stayed in quality hotels such as Washington's Hay Adams and the Hyatt Regency in Monterey and dined at popular restaurants such as Philadelphia's Old Original Bookbinders and the Ritz in Newport Beach. Most every time, according to records and interviews with city officials, taxpayers have been billed for room and board, and sometimes for air fare in the hundreds of dollars.

"Obviously, the spouse of a council member is not a city official," former Councilman Dan Branstine charged in a recent interview. "I find it very questionable whether that's really a legitimate use of public funds."

Councilman Larry Van Nostran makes no apology for traveling with his wife, Jean Ann, at taxpayer expense. "We are a family-oriented community," he said. "I put in 40 hours a week working on the council on top of my running two small (car dealership) businesses. A great deal of stress and family pressures are part of this job, and I can accept that. But to be away from the spouse can be an additional and needless hardship on a marriage, one that I would prefer not to endure."

"Gary Hart's recent downfall," Van Nostran continued, is a case in point. "Would (the presidential candidate) have strolled arm in arm with an aspiring actress if his wife were with him?"

The extra charge for a double room at a hotel, Councilman Robert G. Wagner added, is usually "nothing or some nominally low amount"--too little to be "worth the personal effort" for him to figure out or for city staffers to verify.

Furthermore, what Lakewood does "is not an uncommon practice" in other cities, Wagner contends.

However, the city councils of Los Angeles and Long Beach don't allow spouses to travel at public expense. And after criticism arose last year in the City of Commerce, officials there revised council policy to require that spouses pay their own air fare before stepping on the plane.

When council travel expenses in Norwalk reached $87,000 for the 1984-85 fiscal year, about 98 cents per resident, voters replaced one incumbent with a candidate who had campaigned for spending reforms. Councils in other southeast Los Angeles County cities spent significantly less on travel that year: for example, $15,655 in Cerritos, about 28 cents per resident, and $10,133 in Downey, about 12 cents per resident. Neither of those cities allows council members' spouses to travel at taxpayer expense.

In Lakewood's city budget, officials report that the council posted roughly $28,000 in travel and meeting expenses--about 37 cents per resident--in each of the past two fiscal years.

Yet determining exactly how much tax money has been spent on council trips--and whether the expenses are appropriate--is difficult, Branstine contends, because the city keeps its financial records in a way that discourages public scrutiny. Unlike neighboring Long Beach, where expense records are kept by a City Council secretary for easy public access, Lakewood spreads its receipts through a number of accounting files that would be hard for most people to track without city assistance.

"It's not illegal," cautioned Branstine, who served on the Lakewood council from 1976 to 1980 and now attends Indiana University law school. "But the motive certainly is to hide the ball."

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