By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
Curry County Manager Lance Pyle has spent more than $1,700 dining at local restaurants, while Portales City Manager Debi Lee’s travels make up the bulk of $6,178 in expenses she racked up in the past 11 months.
A Freedom New Mexico review of six area government leaders showed their taxpayer-funded expenses total about $19,000 from June 1, 2008, to the first week of May.
Most of that money —$16,723 — was tied to travel and meals, typically for conferences and professional seminars.
Expenses submitted also included professional membership dues and miscellaneous items including office decorations, greeting cards and reading material.
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Pyle said he spent $1,737 taking employees, officials and others to lunch and dinner at local restaurants.
Pyle said he believes it is a good networking tool and helps “mend fences,” and gets projects moving.
Only two others in the review — Lee ($60.42) and Clovis schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm ($12) — spent taxpayer dollars on local meals. They spent the money at formal luncheons or large group meetings.
Most of Pyle’s luncheons were either one-on-one or with small groups.
“I’m a working manager. I like to get stuff done,” Pyle said.
The county manager said he and his staff often work up to 16 hours a day and through the lunch hour so he sometimes pays for working lunches.
Pyle said he also treated job applicants and other officials to meals. He said he finds it is easier to get to know people and get things done in a relaxed setting, free from interruptions of the office.
The county administration office is closed for an hour each weekday at noon for lunch. But Pyle said interruptions still occur and it is often better to hold discussions in a different environment over a meal.
Among those treated to lunch were Pyle’s executive assistant, other administrative staff, the county attorney, commissioners, county department heads and local political leaders.
“I do not claim 100 percent of what I do … I’m not taking people to expensive places,” Pyle said.
“I have a great staff. They’re very dedicated and very small compared to other counties.”
Among expenses Pyle claimed was $6.40 for sodas he provided investigators working on the escape last August at the county jail.
Pyle said he asked for a clause in his employment contract allowing him an expense budget of $5,000 to cover meals, travel and other expenses.
Pyle said he did this because he entered the position at a time when the county was experiencing multiple issues while also trying to make progress on projects.
He said he stipulated the expense budget because he believed, “it was important,” to be able to have meetings over meals.
The contract stipulates alcohol purchases are not covered.
Richard Smith, Pyle’s predecessor, had no such expense clause in his contract.
In his final 12 months of employment, Smith spent about $150 on local meals, records show.
However, Smith’s overall expenses totaled $4,096 his final 12 months, about $400 less than Pyle’s expenses for the 11 months reviewed.
Pyle became county manager in December 2007 following Smith’s resignation.
Pyle’s counterpart, Roosevelt County Manager Charlene Hardin, spent $1,153 during the review period, all on travel with no local meals.
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Lee, the outgoing Portales city manager who has accepted a position in Ruidoso, spent the most among the six officials reviewed.
Most of Lee’s expenses are tied to travel.
She spent more than $4,500 on more than 20 trips to conferences and meetings throughout the state.
Lee said she belongs to multiple committees, which requires travel.
She said all of her travel is connected to community-related training. However, she said her claimed expenses only represent a portion of her actual travel costs.
She said she tries to be conscientious and save her city as much money as she can.
“A lot of times I’ll leave (early in the morning) and I don’t stay at night unless I absolutely have to or if I am really tired,” Lee said.
And, Lee said she often takes people for meetings over coffee without seeking reimbursement. She said she rarely conducts working lunches.
“Other than (coffee meetings), I believe you don’t need to eat, you need to work,” she said.
Lee said she shows appreciation to city workers by rising early and baking them muffins and cookies, which she delivers when she arrives for work.
By comparison, Clovis City Manager Joe Thomas claimed $62.15 for three trips during the period reviewed. Thomas said that represents a small portion of the travel he does.
Thomas said he often pays his own expenses or leaves early in the morning and returns in one day rather than having overnight stays out of town.
“I try to be conscientious,” he said.
Thomas said he believes it is part of his job to travel and represent Clovis without passing on costs to the city.
Thomas said the only time he claims meals is in conjunction with travel outside the community.
If Thomas takes someone to lunch, he said he pays for it without seeking reimbursement.
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Clovis schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm’s expenses totaled $4,400 during the 11 months reviewed. About $3,400 of that was on travel to educational conferences.
Of her expenses, $1,027 went to membership dues to organizations that included the Rotary Club of Clovis, Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce and educational groups.
Seidenwurm said memberships are a part of her contract, encouraged by the school board, and as such are covered under the school’s budget.
“That was a standard part of the superintendent of Clovis’ contract when I got here,” she said.
“I’m sure after having been here four years, it’s a very important link to community.”
Portales schools Superintendent Randy Fowler spent $2,888, all of it related to travel.