HAWAIIAN GARDENS — Responding to charges that he improperly billed taxpayers for $118 in telephone calls, City Councilman Richard Vineyard said Tuesday night that all but one of the calls, made over a two-month period, involved legitimate city business.
Vineyard, who owns a muffler shop, said he will reimburse the city for a $1.87 long-distance call that he made to a muffler warehouse in Bakersfield.
Because he was responding to a message that gave only the warehouse's 805-area code number, Vineyard said, "I assumed I was calling someone from the (California) Contract Cities Assn." Vineyard is the city's representative to the association.
But Vineyard maintained that the rest of the charges made last November and December were justified, including one to a medical lab in San Jose and several to the home of Signal Hill City Councilwoman Sara Dodds.
"If I wanted to do something that was not proper," Vineyard said, "I wouldn't use the most obvious, up-front method to do it."
Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Navejas commended Vineyard for "his honesty and candor," but said the city needs to establish guidelines for allowable council expenses. Navejas raised questions regarding Vineyard's phone charges at the last council meeting and requested a public explanation.
Richard "did a fine and admirable job and I thank him," Navejas told the council. "But there is a problem with policy that we need to address. Some council members take their wives on trips and the city picks up the tab. There is no policy in this city that monitors what is a fair (expenditure) and what is not. Until we have one we will have situations like this."
Draft of Policy
The council directed Acting City Administrator Dudley Lang to draft a council expense policy that will be reviewed at the next meeting on Feb. 23.
"I think it's going to have to be broad," City Atty. Maurice O'Shea said, referring to the proposed policy. "The presumption is that you are elected officials and that you have a degree of integrity. Until we have a specific policy established, we have to rely on ourselves to do what we think is right."
In an interview after the meeting, Navejas suggested setting a $5,000 cap on expenditures for each council member. "If they run out of money before the year is over, that's it," Navejas said. "Other cities have limits, so should we."
Vineyard said he supported the idea of an expense policy, which could clarify a number of "gray areas" in current council practices.
After giving his fellow council members an accounting of the 111 phone calls he made during the months in question, Vineyard said that the one-minute call he placed to Merris Laboratories in San Jose was to clear up a billing problem involving the company that handles his city-sponsored group health insurance.
"I have a blood clot in my left leg," Vineyard said. "I am covered by medical insurance through the city. . . . I consider (the call) city business."
And the 14 calls to Signal Hill Councilwoman Dodds, Vineyard said, were to discuss various issues facing municipal government.