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Travel Expenses for Judges Becomes Union Issue

Orange County labor union has fought to gain access to records of expenses, saying the spending is excessive in a time of tight budgets.

October 21, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Unlike typical union-employer conflicts over health care and wage issues, the sparring between Orange County court officials and rank-and-file employees has focused on the amount of money spent on travel by judges and executives.

And travel records released to The Times will probably stoke the tension between the two sides.

Union officials have been trying for four months to get their hands on travel records they say could show lavish travel by judges and court executives at a time the court has reduced its public hours and implemented a hiring freeze.

The union has refused copies of records with judges' names removed and is appealing for unedited records. The Times requested records through the Public Records Act and accepted copies with virtually all names removed.

Those records show judges' travel to conferences in Ireland, Hawaii and Canada. On international travel, judges paid their own airfare; the county paid for hotels and meals. In the last five years, the courts spent $2.3 million on travel and training expenses for its employees, according to Alan Slater, the court's chief executive officer.

A union official said Monday that he thinks that amount is "outrageous," but Slater defended it as a necessary cost of keeping abreast of technology and the ever-changing legal landscape.

Because each county's court system keeps its own records and may define travel expenses differently, comparing Orange County courts to others in the state is difficult. A spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts said the Orange County courts spent $379,000 on travel costs, including conference tuition, for its employees during the past fiscal year. San Diego County courts, a slightly larger system than Orange County's, spent $141,087 in the same time span, but that excluded tuition costs, said state courts spokeswoman Lynn Holton. San Bernardino County's, which is smaller than Orange County's, spent $306,377, and Riverside County spent $180,251, Holton said. Both counties' figures excluded tuition costs.

"The knowledge and experience gained by attending classes, training programs, conferences and meetings has greatly benefited the court and the public we serve," Slater said in a prepared statement. "In lean economies the court, like any other business or government entity, has to tighten its belt in all areas, including travel and training."

Nick Berardino, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents about 1,300 court employees, said he thinks the court is spending too much money on travel and should reduce costs, including by sending just one judge to out-of-state conferences who can report to others.

In the last two years, the court has paid at least part of the travel costs to send judges to conferences and meetings in Ireland; Canada; Hawaii; New York; Washington; New Orleans; Baltimore; Jacksonville, Fla.; Minneapolis; Dallas; Reno; Lake Tahoe; Napa, Calif., and elsewhere, according to the court's records.

Three Orange County judges attended the American Judges Assn. conference in Maui in September 2002, records show. Even though the court did not pay for airfare, its costs for hotels, meals and incidentals exceeded $4,100, records show.

Two Orange County judges attended the International Assn. of Women Judges conference in Dublin, Ireland, in May 2002, records show. Again, the court did not pay for airfare but spent more than $2,000 to cover the judges' other expenses, records show.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Marjorie Laird Carter, one of the two judges who attended the Ireland conference, said through her clerk that she saved money by sharing her room with two other judges. Berardino, the union official, said he believes Orange County's travel expenses are an embarrassment to the court and its employees. Details about the travel comes at a time that the court has imposed a hiring freeze, reduced hours its offices are open to the public and briefly withheld raises for some employees, citing fiscal concerns.

"How can employees have confidence of what's going on in the court when we look at the amount of money being spent for travel and the places where these people are going at a time workers are having to do double the amount of work they had to do in the past?" he said.

Berardino criticized the court for deleting the names of judges from travel reimbursement forms. The union has refused to accept edited versions of expense forms from the court and is continuing to pursue its case in a state appeals court.

"Judges are elected by the public. The public has a right to know which judges are traveling at public expense, particularly those that are taking trips outside the state and outside the United States," he said.

Slater noted that the judges pay their own airfare for overseas travel. Slater said on a recent trip to a conference in Australia, officials there paid the bulk of his expenses.

"When the conferences have been overseas, the individual has been responsible for covering the airfare so that the cost to the court would not be any more than if the conference was in this country," Slater said in his statement. He said some travel is for judges to attend required legal seminars.

Frederick Horn, the court's presiding judge, billed the county about $1,500 as one of at least three Orange County judges who attended a conference of the National Assn. of Women Judges in New York in 2001.

Horn declined to discuss his travel expenses.

Slater said he chose not to identify the other judges by name on travel records because of concerns and to reduce staff time. He did not explain how marking judges' names off of the expense forms saved staff time.

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