Last month, Controller Steve Barron submitted a troubling memo to Northampton County Council, suggesting that stronger internal controls are needed over the amount of money spent on travel and related expenses. What bothered him were trips to New Orleans and Las Vegas by Human Resources staffers, as well as a staggering jump in training for Human Resources (HR), where spending increased from $5,749.35 in 2015 to $56,758.15 in 2016. He never even got into HR Director Amy Trapp's decision to blow $800 on a popcorn machine, or thousands of dollars spent on Target gift cards with no accountability. At a Council meeting later that week, Mat Benol dismissed Barron's report as "one of those knee-jerk things that our Controller has done to try to make the Executive look bad. I'm just getting tired of it." Amy Trapp herself was unavailable, but was at last night's meeting to explain why all this spending was so necessary. Though Barron never criticized the money spent on training by Corrections Director Dan Keen, he was called forth to explain how the training at the jail saves lives. And Benol renewed his attacks on Barron. Instead of responding to the message, he attacked the messenger. He wants to defund the Controller.
Trapp justified the conferences in Las Vegas and New Orleans. She indicated the trip to Las Vegas was to learn how to use a software system, and that is the only place where the training is done.
Her justification for the New Orleans trip for workers compensation was that it had been recommended by the third party administrator and saved the County money. She noted that the County spent $1.4 million on workers compensation claims in 2015, but only $595,000 in 2016. She implied that the County saved all this money on workers compensation because of that New Orleans trip.
That is a flawed argument because the New Orleans trip was in the end of 2016, between November 29 and December 2. That trip could have only affected workers compensation matters after December 2.
She also claimed that the money spent on training reduced turnover by about five per cent. Turnover may have been reduced in 2016 over 2015, but no evidence linked reduced turnover with the increased training.Moreover, she herself indicated that the county's turnover rate last year was 15% and that the average in the public sector is 10-12%.
It's unclear whether anyone aside from Benol or Seth Vaughn was persuaded by her spiel.
Matt Dietz asked her whether she shopped around for the best hotel rates. Trapp attempted to justify paying more at the Mirage Hotel. Dietz stated that his job requires him to travel and his company shops for the best rates. He noted that there are workers comp classes in Pennsylvania.
Bob Werner pointed out that Trapp is in charge of the policies for travel and meals. She admitted she scheduled the trip. He pointed that the policy requires government employees who travel o get discounted and low rates. Then Trapp said that someone else scheduled the trip "This was absolutely in your area of expertise," Werner told her. "I don't think this was done as well as it could have been done." He also noted that Trapp is using savings in 2016 to justify a trip at the end of 2016.
"There are questions here that should have been reviewed before the trip," he said.
Seth Vaughn then said he was encouraged by Trapp for "seizing these opportunities." He believed that a trip to New Orleans at the end of 2016 saved the county $1 million in 2016. Even though it didn't.
"This is nothing more than a political hit piece," said Mat Benol, "and I'm going to address the gorilla in the room." He called Barron's report "false news."
After Trapp was done, Brown then decided to call Corrections Director Dan Keen to justify his training expenditures, even though Barron had no complaints about the amount of money his department spent on training. Keen, who was away from his job at least 39 times over the past two years, spoke about the importance of training, though what he did has nothing to do with New Orleans or Las Vegas.
"God forbid, look what happened in Delaware," he said, though I had no idea what he was talking about.
Then he started talking about active shooters in prison lobbies, and I suppose that's a justification for trips to Las Vegas and New Orleans.
After they were done, Benol said he wants to do something to Barron because he has a history of violating the Home Rule Charter and Administrative Code. Then he slammed Barron for getting $22,100 from DA John Morganelli when he ran for Attorney General. He noted that Barron failed to report this on his ethics report. "He's nothing more than a corrupt officer," said Benol. "The optics of this stinks."
He went on to say that Barron's salary be defunded.
He seemed to think that money was going into Barron's pocket, but this accusation is false. As Benol might say, false news. Barron owns an autodialer, and Morganelli gave him money so he could purchase time on it for calls made by Morganelli. None of that money went into Barron's pocket.
Instead of paying attention to the message, the Brown administration went after the Controller. He was called "corrupt" for pointing out that Human Relations is blowing taxpayer money like drunken sailors.
The whole point of bringing this situation to Council now, instead of September, was to keep it from becoming political. But it will be political now. I am sure voters will have a different view of Barron's memo than the one offered by Benol.