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Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011 04:39 pm

Breakfast, lunch and dinner – on you


Mike Stratton has served as the Springfield Park District executive director since August 2006.

Springfield Park District executive director Mike Stratton has used his taxpayer-funded credit card to purchase nearly $2,000 worth of restaurant food since April of last year, when he laid off about 30 employees, according to an Illinois Times analysis of Stratton’s credit card statements from August 2006 through June 2011.

Stratton became park district executive director in August of 2006 and has since charged more than 100 restaurant bills worth about $5,900 to his park district credit card. Stratton did not submit receipts for 21 of the restaurant charges, wrote few legible notations regarding the reason for the meetings and who attended, and almost none of the receipts were itemized. The sporadic absence of receipts include instances that occurred after 2008 and 2009 independent audits cited the district for “checks that did not have proper documentation” and recommended that the district attach invoices to all payment records.

Thirty-five of the restaurant charges, worth a total of $1,862, came after the park district laid off nearly 30 workers about 16 months ago. At a committee meeting last week, park district trustees discussed not reordering any novelty items, like Frisbees and pencils stamped “Springfield Park District,” because the public might see the expense as frivolous during hard economic times. The district expects to dip into reserve funds to cover expenses during the current fiscal year, the budget for which is more than $11 million, about $830,000 more than last fiscal year.

While many of the notes written on the back of the receipts are illegible, some show that Stratton held staff meetings, meetings with individual park board trustees and meetings with trustee candidates at a variety of local restaurants. It appears that Stratton’s park district credit card was also used on more than a dozen occasions to pay for lunch for park district trustees during board meetings between June 2007 and December 2008.

Other restaurant expenditures are described in handwritten notes on the back of summary receipts as meetings with the owners of the Springfield Sliders: one in the amount of $264.96 for a dinner at Outback Steakhouse on Nov. 26, 2007; another in the amount of $151.35 for a dinner at now-shuttered Sammy’s Sports Bar and Grill on April 3, 2008; and another in the amount of $48.52 for a late-afternoon meal at Hooters on April 1, 2008. All of the meetings took place after the Sliders and park district in February 2007 signed a contract for the use of Lanphier Park’s Robin Roberts Stadium.

When using the park district credit card, Stratton tipped an average of 21.3 percent, with a range of 8.7 percent, on an $85.92 bill for a “staff meeting” at Capital City Bar and Grill, to 32.7 percent, on a $15.26 bill for a lunch meeting at Aztca Mexican Grill.

The park district’s union president could not be reached for comment, but recording secretary James Schackmann says, “We do rely on them to run the Springfield Park District properly and we would ask them always in good faith to run it in the best of their ability and not spend in these current economic times any frivolous amounts.” He says he’s not sure what ordinary practice is for government agencies like the Springfield Park District, so he wouldn’t comment on the appropriateness of the restaurant expenditures.

The Better Government Association’s investigations editor, Bob Herguth, says he’s not familiar with the particulars of the Springfield Park District’s credit card spending but notes that lack of oversight is problematic. “One thing we have noticed is that many governmental agencies have very shoddy record-keeping, in particular they’re lacking itemized receipts. So, for groups such as the BGA, or curious members of the press and public, it’s difficult or impossible to determine whether, say, alcohol was consumed at one of these business meals, or whether somebody ordered a $100 steak. If they want to use a credit card with taxpayer money, we don’t think it’s too much to ask to see what exactly was paid for. There’s no excuse for missing or illegible receipts.”

“The money spent by some of these agencies might not sound like a lot, given the size of their budgets, but in these lean times every dollar counts and, aside from that, it’s the principle of it. Our money should be spent wisely and only on what’s needed. Are these meals needed? That’s a question for the park district,” Herguth says.

Park District Trustee Mark Beagles says the restaurant charges, as well as the hiring of Stratton’s girlfriend for a previously eliminated position, are examples of “things not being thought through clearly.” [See “All in the family,” July 21, 2011]. He says restaurant charges for off-site visits are reasonable, but taking staff out to lunch when meetings could be held in a park district facility is questionable. “A lot of times appearances have more weight than anything,” Beagles says, adding that, overall, he believes Stratton is doing a good job.

Park District Trustee Gray Noll says the district should address the issue of missing receipts, but he isn’t especially concerned about the restaurant charges. “I trust that all this stuff is park district related and appropriately being used. I trust Mike Stratton and I trust the systems that are in place,” Noll says.

Trustee and finance committee chair Tina Jannazzo says park board members generally are not made aware of specific itemized expenditures, including the restaurant charges, but that she’ll look into them as well as procedures for submitting receipts. “I would say that we need to really cut those expenditures – limit those as much as possible considering the outlook of our budget in the next couple of years,” Jannazzo says.

Questioned about the expenses, Stratton says he was not aware of the cumulative effect of the restaurant charges and that “this is an opportunity for the board and the administration to develop written policies and procedures in which to incorporate and tighten up in all of these areas.”

But Stratton also defends the expenditures as productive and as investments. “I think it’s good that we go out and have these meetings with staff and they are out of the office and they are in an environment to motivate them and to provide them with ease of environment,” Stratton says. “When we come to a board room … it becomes a very tense employee-employer relationship.”

Stratton says the meetings with the Sliders owners included discussions of marketing strategies as well as plans that led to the construction of a party deck. “I think it was time well spent,” he says.

In recent months, Stratton also has been using his park district credit card to fill his personal vehicle with gasoline. Between Jan. 30 and June 27 of this year, Stratton has used the card to purchase $798 worth of fuel, generally noting on receipts that it’s compensation for gasoline burned during local “site visits.”

Under contract, Stratton receives a $200 monthly stipend on top of his $97,754 annual salary “in lieu of a District furnished automobile.” The contract does not specify that gasoline is or is not included in that stipend, and the district’s general personnel handbook, written in 1997, contains no policy regarding gasoline reimbursement.

Stratton says the increased use of the credit card for gasoline charges is the result of higher gas prices and more local site visits. “With the current gas price and everything else, I’ve been spending a lot more out of pocket than I would normally,” Stratton says, adding that he doesn’t see the need for a new written policy. “I don’t see any abuse issues.”

Trustee Ted Flickinger says he’s reviewing and compiling both old and new park district policies and that gasoline allowance and expenditure documentation will be part of the policy review. “We can’t do everything that everyone wants us to do but we can be the best professionals and have the public respect the agency for being highly professional and accountable,” Flickinger says.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

To see a detailed list of restaurant tabs charged to the Springfield Park District credit card under the executive director’s control.

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