The Brookhaven City Council voted May 14 to keep expense account caps for the mayor and council members as part of the city charter, reversing course from two weeks ago when they planned to eliminate the restrictions because they said they needed more money to travel to national and international conferences.

The council’s decision follows community backlash from residents who said eliminating the caps so soon into the city’s history was fiscally irresponsible, could pave the way for abuse and could lead to a lack of transparency when it comes to open records requests.

City officials deny there is a lack of transparency, but did acknowledge there seemed to be a mix-up on what the charter review commission recommended about the expense accounts in their report to the council two years ago.

The charter review commission’s final report filed on the city’s website has no mention of eliminating the caps but rather recommends raising the caps. City Attorney Chris Balch said during the May 14 work session before the regular council meeting that he and Assistant City Manager Steve Chapman recalled the commission making the recommendation to remove the caps. He also said the recommendation was included in the minutes of the commission’s final meeting.

“However, the report [the charter review commission] submitted did not include any reference to dollar amounts being removed,” Balch said. “Due to the ambiguity it is really up to the council on how to proceed, whether to go with the increase or go with my [and Chapman’s] recollection.”

Mayor John Ernst said he recently talked to two members of the charter review commission who told them they had no notes from their meetings two years ago. “They thought they may have said remove the caps, but they didn’t remember that specifically,” Ernst said.

Councilmember John Park said he supported removing the caps because he believed the charter review commission recommended doing so. But with the questions raised in the past two weeks about what was really recommended, it was “better to be cautious,” he said.

“When in doubt, go with the specific documentation on the website,” Park said.

The council did vote to raise the caps from $5,000 to $7,000 for the mayor and from $3,000 to $5,000 for each council member. The increase was recommended in 2017 by the charter review commission as part of the city’s first five-year charter review as required by the state. The commission also recommended raising the mayor’s salary from $16,000 to $20,000 and the council’s salaries from $12,000 to $16,000, but the council did not take up this issue.

The mayor and council had said removing the caps that are tied to travel expenses would make way for larger expense accounts in the general budget necessary to pay for national and international travel as the city seeks to become a political player in metro Atlanta and across the state. The current amounts stated in the charter were limiting their opportunities to participate in major functions, they said. For example, Ernst said he was unable to travel last year with a DeKalb County delegation to study transit in Minneapolis due his limited travel funding outlined in the charter.

Councilmember Linley Jones took issue with allegations of the city not being transparent about its spending and said she wanted the public to know there is “complete transparency” about how the city spends its money through a special “Citizen Transparency” portal on the city’s website under the Finance link.

Terrell Carstens, a resident who regularly seeks open records information from the city about spending, said during public comment she appreciated the council’s decision to keep the expense account caps in the city charter. But she questioned the reason the council wanted to eliminate the caps especially when they wanted to do so without stating the totals of the new expense account amounts.

“What dollar amounts are you wanting and for what? This is a fair question and you need to be upfront, transparent and honest with an answer prior to any change,” she said. Carstens also criticized the Citizen Transparency portal as being difficult to understand.

The expense account amounts noted in the city charter are not the only money the mayor and council members have to cover costs. They have a department budget as well. The 2019 budget for the mayor and council totals $426,700. In 2018, the department total was $438,524.

Major expenses covered with this funding include membership fees for the Georgia Municipal Association, the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce and the DeKalb Municipal Association. The budget also covers the mayor’s and council’s salaries.

To view city spending in various categories and departments, click here.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.