Trion Council Ponders New Travel And Credit Card Rules PDF Print E-mail
News - Local News
Thursday, 07 September 2017 10:03
Staff Writer
The Trion Town Council heard a first reading of proposed changes to its policies regarding travel expenses and credit card procedures by personnel after complaints and the threat of a lawsuit by a town resident. Council is expected to vote on the new policies in September.
Former town attorney Carlton Vines has been vocal in recent months about what he believes was exorbitant spending on travel by town officials, particularly by Mayor Larry Stansell, and by what he said was illegal use of the town’s credit card.
Stansell defends both the travel expenses and the manner in which the town was using its credit cards. However, the new ordinances will alter and codify those policies and procedures.
During a council meeting last Thursday, Stansell read a statement into the official minutes of the meeting. Part of that statement concerns the need for the town to follow its established procedures for bidding out projects and purchases. Vines has also been critical of what he says is a failure to follow bidding procedures.
Stansell’s statement read:
“In recent days, it was brought to our attention that we might need to update the Town’s travel and credit card usage policies. These policies have been updated and we will have the first reading of our new ordinance at our regular council meeting on August 24, 2017 at 6 p.m. in the Town Hall conference room.
Also, we will go over the Town of Trion’s ordinance to establish competitive bid procedures to reaffirm that we all know and understand the process. We will seek guidance from Albert Palmour, town attorney, on future bids to assure compliance.”
In the face of strong criticism by Vines, Stansell has maintained that the town has a “very strong policy” in regards to how town credit cards are used. He said he has researched the matter going back years and has found no indication of any misuse of the town’s credit cards.
“We have had a strong policy for a long time and we will continue to have a strong policy,” he said.
However, Stansell said he did learn from Vines that under state law the town’s policy needed to be codified. That’s the ordinance the town council is currently considering. 
“We need to codify our policies and that’s what we are doing,” said Stansell.
Vines isn’t happy with that answer.
“I think the town is a year late with its credit card policy and all the purchases it made in the last year were made illegally,” said Vines.
He sharpened his attack against Stansell, citing a 2014 court case in which Stansell was found to owe the Bank of the Ozarks more than $2.5 million.  
“Given Larry’s credit history, he should be required to pass a credit check the same as a state employee or an employee of a major corporation,” said Vines. “Some people shouldn’t have a credit card and Larry is one of them.”
Stansell acknowledged that the court did find in favor of his creditor but disputes the amount he owes his creditor. He said the creditor took two buildings which he used as collateral on longstanding loans.
“Like thousands of other businesses that were hurt by the slowdown in 2007, my business, which we had just expanded, was badly hurt,” Stansell said. “The bank in Rome that I had done business with for many years was foreclosed on and the new owners decided not to extend my loan. We got caught in the squeeze that the banking industry was going through at that time.”
“I’ll stand by my record of operating a business successfully for more than 40 years,” said Stansell. “
Georgia law does not require credit checks for elected officials.
Stansell said he believed the town already has a sound travel policy but some changes were justified.  
The main change was the new policy establishes two per diem allowances for meals. One is based on travel to less expensive areas; the other allows higher meal spending in more expensive locales. There was no set amount for meals before.
For instance, the per diem in “non-high cost subsistence areas” is $8 for breakfast, $16 for lunch and $26 for dinner. In “high-cost subsistence and/or convention areas” the per diem is $12 for breakfast, $18 for lunch and $55 for dinner.
The policy states that “spousal travel expenses will not be reimbursed unless it is reasonable to expect the spouse to be officially representing the Town of Trion.”
Stansell said a spouse accompanying an office holder to an “official event” is in effect “representing the Town” and thus eligible to have the cost of their meals paid by taxpayers.
“We don’t want to make it so difficult to travel that no one wants to travel again,” Stansell told The News on Tuesday. 
Stansell did not give a definitive answer if non-spouses -- for instance boyfriends or girlfriends -- attending official events were covered under the policy.
Anyone traveling at town expense must have that travel approved by the mayor in advance. Receipts are required for reimbursement. 
The town has authorized reimbursement for the following:
* Meals associated with overnight lodging and in certain circumstances where there is no overnight lodging;
* Lodging expenses;
* Mileage for certain uses of a personal vehicle;
* Transportation expenses, including parking and toll fees; and,
* Certain miscellaneous expenses associated with travel.
Vines was critical of Stansell in particular for his choice of an expensive hotel during a trip to a convention in Savannah this summer. The policy addresses that issue.
“The traveler may be reimbursed for the cost of a single standard room accommodations typically occupied by business travelers at moderately-priced hotels.” However, an exception that would technically justify paying higher rates is included in the policy:  “Exceptions will be considered to accommodate stays at the host facility.” 
Vines told The News that he also threatened to sue the town over its failure to properly adhere to its own policy of taking public bids for projects and large purchases.
“Of equal or greater concern (than the travel and credit card policies) is the town’s failure to abide by its own bidding policy,” said Vines. “They have been ignoring their own policy for a long time.”
Neither the mayor nor the council addressed this issue publicly, other than the brief mention in Stansell’s “opening statement.”

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