NEWPORT NEWS -- A 13News Now investigation has uncovered members of the Newport News City Council spending tax dollars to attend social events, stay in expensive hotels and drive city-owned cars.
The findings come in response to a Freedom of Information Request submitted in early March asking for receipts for council members' personal expenses and their use of city vehicles between March 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014. Click here for the expenditure report.
Each of the six council members is paid a $25,000 annual salary. Mayor McKinley Price is paid $27,000. In addition to their salary, the mayor and council members are allotted $2,000 to spend as they see fit each year.
Some council members, like Herbert Bateman and Robert Coleman, had no expenses for the period. But other council members did spend the money. For example, Councilwoman Sharon Scott racked up $8,000 in mileage and travel to out-of-state events.
Mayor McKinley Price spent $1,710.50 on a mix of out-of-town travel, work sessions with the city manager and parking. That total includes $631.71 for a three-day hotel stay in Richmond for Governor Terry McAuliffe's inauguration in January.
Price defended the hotel stay, saying he stayed at a pre-selected hotel and had no control over the rates.
"That was one of the hotels where we were allowed to stay and I was representing the city," Price said.
That likely wouldn't happen now because the of a new city travel policy council members approved in March. It only allows overnight hotel stays for destinations more than 75 miles from the intersection of J. Clyde Morris Blvd and Jefferson Ave. The vote was six to one. The lone dissenter was Councilwoman Scott. Click here for the new travel policy.
Records obtained from the city did not specify where Price stayed in Richmond but a mileage search from that intersection to the State Capitol in Richmond, near where Price likely stayed, was 69 miles.
When asked whether he'd stay at that hotel with the new the travel policy in place, he said, "If I'm representing the city, yes. I think that was well within the means."
Some council members spend hundreds of dollars attending glitzy social events.
Council members Pat Woodbury and Tina Vick attended a Mardi Gras event thrown by Habitat for Humanity. Both women used tax dollars to purchase two tickets at a cost of $150 per pair.
Woodbury spent another $150 to attend another Habitat for Humanity event in October 2013 and $90 for two tickets to the American Red Cross' Dress Down Under event in April 2013.
When asked if the expenditures were a good use of tax dollars, Woodbury responded, "Well, that's debatable. I don't know."
She pointed out that she only attends events for charities she feels make a difference for the community and said she would prefer charities provide her tickets to the events. She balked at the prospect of spending her own money to attend the fundraisers.
"I'm on a very low retirement and my husband is retired," she said. "I don't have that kind of money."
Councilwoman Tina Vick spent $595 attending local events and another $306.39 on business lunches. Records supplied by the city do not specify the purposes of those lunches.
The list of events Vick paid to attend include two events with the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority totaling $90; $35 for a ticket to the Eureka Club 61st Anniversary Debutante Cotillion; and $120 for two tickets to a banquet for the Office of Human Affairs.
Vick scheduled an interview for this story after weeks of ignoring our request for comment through the staff at City Hall but failed to show up on the day of the appointment. Subsequent phone calls and text messages to the councilwoman have gone unanswered.
Only one other council member used any tax money to attend local events. Councilman Joseph Whitaker spent $60 for one ticket to the OHA banquet.
City Vehicle Use
In addition to spending hundreds on lunches and social occasions, Tina Vick used a city car more than any other council member.
The city's policy governing car use, which applies to council members, allows a city-owned car to be used to go to and from events when officials are representing the city or doing city business.
Only Vick and Councilwoman Pat Woodbury drove city-owned cars during the period covered by the records we requested. Click here for the Vehicle Use Policy
Woodbury explained she drives a city car for various board meetings where she represents the city in lieu of charging the city mileage, like other council members. Click here to see vehicle use by city council members
"It was very, very expensive for the city," Woodbury said. "So I started, instead, taking a city car so I turn in no mileage for myself."
According to documents provided by the city, Woodbury checked out a car 34 times for a total of 72 days.
Tina Vick checked out a car 14 times and drove it for a total of 86 days. That included 21 days between October 11 and October 31, 2013 when she drove 1,040 miles in the car, records show.
Other stints with the car include 13 days in July 2013 and nine days starting January 15, 2014.
Mayor Price said he was not aware of Vick's use of a city-owned car until 13News Now requested the records for this story.
"It does appear to be something that the Council is going to have to address," Price said.
We'll keep following the story and let you know when the issue is addressed.
Click here to see 13News Now anchor David Alan and investigative reporter Nick Ochsner discuss the process behind the investigation.