AURORA | Mayor Mike Coffman recently slammed travel spending by Aurora City Council progressives as gratuitous — but travel receipts obtained by The Sentinel paint a more nuanced picture of city-funded travel, which all but two councilors engaged in last year.
Coffman is poised to ask city lawmakers to limit travel after making a host of allegations against two members of the city council.
Each year, elected officials spend tens of thousands of dollars trekking across the country and around the world to boost Aurora’s reputation as an international city and search for policy solutions at home.
Along the way, they patronize hotels and restaurants, bedding down and dining on the dime of taxpayers. Council members are reimbursed for their travel from a $7,000-per-person annual travel budget — except for the mayor, who receives $11,000 — and unspent funds can be carried over and spent in subsequent years.
A deputy city manager reviews the travel costs incurred by council members, who are obliged to submit expense reports and receipts within 30 days of their return.
Travel is also a major component of Aurora’s economic engine — in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Aurora and a swath of the eastern Denver metro area, domestic and international travelers spent around $2.7 billion in 2019, while an estimated 19,439 workers in the travel industry were paid a combined $841.8 million, according to a report by the U.S. Travel Association.
There have historically been no limits on where council members can travel for city business. But Coffman, who last year led a taxpayer-funded delegation to El Salvador, denounced council globetrotting after learning of council members Juan Marcano and Crystal Murillo’s trip to the Paris suburb of Le Plessis-Robinson for an urban design conference in May.
“I think that international travel for locally elected officials is always suspect,” Coffman opined during the City Council’s June 13 meeting.
Prior to the meeting, the mayor tweeted that it was “an insult to the hardworking taxpayers of this city” for the two to attend “a conference, in Paris of all places,” concluding that the “next time they want to take a European vacation, they can pay for it themselves.”
Marcano and Murillo have defended their trip as a chance to learn more about planning and development, and an extension of previous trips associated with the project to mundane places like Indiana.
On June 27, the council is scheduled to vote on Coffman’s proposal to require all taxpayer-funded international travel to earn prior approval from six councilors and the mayor, and be at the specific request of either Aurora Sister Cities International or the Office of International and Immigrant Affairs.
Aurora wouldn’t be the first city to focus special scrutiny on elected officials traveling abroad.
On the subject of out-of-state travel, Arvada’s council policies allow members to attend two National League of Cities conferences per year as well as one other out-of-state conference on the public dime without seeking prior approval from the group. Any other trips outside of Colorado must be pre-approved by the council, including any trip as an envoy to one of Arvada’s sister cities.
Westminster’s rules require council members to give their colleagues a heads-up before taking a reimbursable trip out-of-state. The group can refuse to reimburse a council member “if attendance cannot be shown to support, or be part of, an initiative of the city,” and they must vote affirmatively to let a member take more than two out-of-state trips in a year.
Colorado Springs, meanwhile, requires council members to get the group’s approval before undertaking any reimbursable out-of-state travel.
“This creates transparency (for) the taxpayers about what we’re doing,” Coffman said of his proposed policy.
Marcano and Murillo together requested close to $8,600 in reimbursements for their trip to the 2022 International Making Cities Livable Conference, where they heard presentations by development experts, toured the suburb of Le Plessis-Robinson and promoted Aurora to the area’s chamber of commerce.
“The conference is really about returning to the thousands of years of good urban planning as opposed to the suburban sprawl where people don’t know their neighbors, and you have to commute long distances,” Marcano told The Sentinel in May. He said he and Murillo hoped to apply the information shared during the conference during planning and zoning discussions.
City representatives have said the reimbursement amount is not final and will likely be adjusted down. But council members spent even more on domestic travel in 2021 — a trend that is likely to continue in 2022.
Cost of Accelerate Colorado trip to nation’s capital cracked $10,000 in 2021
In October, conservative lawmakers joined representatives of business advocacy group Accelerate Colorado, which is affiliated with the Aurora Economic Development Council, on a three-day trip to Washington, D.C.
Costing taxpayers at least $10,500, the lobbying trip by council members Francoise Bergan, Marsha Berzins, Curtis Gardner and Dave Gruber was the most expensive single voyage undertaken by Aurora’s council in 2021.
The trip cost $3,500 a head, though city spokesman Ryan Luby said it was unclear whether Berzins’ trip had been paid for by the city. Attendees had the chance to meet with Colorado’s representatives in Congress and take part in other networking activities.
Councilors Bergan, Gardner, Danielle Jurinsky, Angela Lawson, Steve Sundberg and Dustin Zvonek were all scheduled to return to D.C. earlier this month as part of Accelerate Colorado’s 2022 trip, costing taxpayers $17,500.
Nonpartisan mayoral delegation to El Salvador cost more than $7,000
Before questioning council members’ motives for traveling abroad, Coffman led a troupe of councilors on a four-day mission to the coastal nation of El Salvador.
Aurora has a special relationship with El Salvador and is likely home to thousands of emigrants from the Central American country, according to Census numbers.
In 2017, the government of El Salvador opened a consulate in Aurora, and Antiguo Cuscatlán, near the capital of San Salvador, has been designated an official friendship city of Aurora by the Aurora Sister Cities International program.
Marcano and Councilmember Alison Coombs represented Aurora alongside Coffman on the journey, which was led by Sister Cities International.
Costing $2,350 per person, the El Salvador delegation led by Coffman was the only international trip for which council members sought reimbursement in 2021 and the second-priciest council jaunt overall.
Indiana conference preceded suburban Paris trip, cost upward of $5,000
The International Making Cities Livable Conference last year touched down in Carmel, Indiana, where progressives Coombs, Marcano and Murillo traveled to gain new insights about urban planning and design.
The city of 100,000 frequently appears on lists of the most livable and safest cities in the U.S., boasting strong schools, low unemployment and well-designed neighborhoods.
After returning from the Hoosier State, the city approved a cumulative $5,034.79 in expenses for the three, including $2,085 in registration fees, $1,248 in airfare, $519 for hotels and around $1,180 on ground transportation, meals and other expenses.
Conservatives’ Westminster junket cost city more than $3,000 in hotels
Who says you have to travel outside of the metro area to enjoy a taxpayer-funded hotel stay?
During the Colorado Municipal League’s annual conference in Westminster last year, the city picked up the tab for 14 cumulative nights in area hotels, costing taxpayers more than $3,000.
The Westminster Westin is about a 25 minute drive from Aurora’s City Hall in light traffic — that didn’t stop council members Bergan, Berzins, Gardner and Lawson from each spending three nights there, where they racked up lodging expenses of about $659, $638, $897 and $659 respectively. Gruber spent two nights at the Westminster DoubleTree, which cost about $229.
While Coombs and Marcano also reported expenses stemming from their involvement in the CML conference, they either did not stay in a hotel or did not receive reimbursement from the city for lodging.
In total, factoring in registration fees and other expenses, Aurora City Council members’ attendance at the in-state conference cost taxpayers about $5,670. The league’s 2022 conference was held June 21-24 in Breckenridge.
City lawmakers are slated to consider Coffman’s proposal Monday night. The city council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.