Ghana Trip Causing Headache For Mayor
Macon, Ga -- Although Macon Mayor Jack Ellis said his trip to Ghana in August would be funded mostly by private donations, so far the city's on the hook for more than $11,800.
City officials, though, say they still expect private donations to fund most of the weeklong venture but plan on keeping the donors' identities a secret.
Ellis, along with City Council members Alveno Ross and Charles Dudley, left for Macon's sister city Elmina, Ghana, on Aug. 4, saying they would visit the country's Panafest Festival and meet with leaders to discuss ways for the city to export products, including cigarettes and Blue Bird buses to the West African country.
The entourage, which returned Aug. 11, included a member from the Cherry Blossom Festival, a former city intern from the communications department, an African dance instructor from the recreation department and a member of the Juneteenth Freedom Festival.
During a news conference called several hours before leaving on the trip, Ellis said several "anonymous donators" will underwrite "most of this trip," but the city would probably have to pick up "$4,000 to $5,000."
Although a large chunk of the trip has been covered, taxpayers still are picking up two-thirds of the cost.
But, the city is expecting another "two or three checks soon," said Clarence Thomas, director of communications for the city, speaking on behalf of Ellis.
Tuesday, records released by the city's finance department show the trip actually cost the city $11,801.01 after reimbursements. The original tab was $17,150.46.
The following is a partial breakdown of the expenses and reimbursements:
• July 28, the city sent $15,480 to Henderson Travel Service, a Maryland-based travel agent, to cover airplane tickets, an English-speaking guide, an air-conditioned motor coach and some hotel fees.
• The city advanced the mayor $96.55, which included gas, food and some hotel costs.
• The city also advanced the mayor $800 for a donation to the Edina Traditional Council Elmina, to be used for a conference for women and youth.
• An additional receipt shows that the city also paid another $774.46 in hotel costs.
The city received a refund from Henderson Travel Service on Sept. 2 for $4,850, money that City Finance Director Kelly Clark said was privately donated to the city through the travel agency. At least $1,000 of that money was donated by local business owner Bill Fickling III, who said Tuesday he wanted to help the Cherry Blossom Festival, which was sending its director, Allen Freeman, as a representative.
"I was glad to donate money to the Cherry Blossom Festival so they could pay their own way - we donate to them all the time," Fickling said. "We give a lot of money to charities, but we try to keep the publicity low."
The city also received a $500 donation Sept. 26 from the Kwanzaa Cultural Access Center in Macon.
Clark said because Henderson Travel receives the donations, she did not know who the private donors are, and the city is not keeping a record of the names.
The mayor has said he will keep the names anonymous.
Gaynelle Henderson-Baily, owner of Henderson Travel Service, said her company considered the names "to be information that is client privileged."
"We're not in the habit of revealing the travel records on anyone," said Henderson-Baily, whose company specializes in group tours of Africa.
State Ethics Commission Director Theodore "Teddy" Lee said whether the names could be kept from the public depends on whether the money can be tied to a campaign contribution, which is public.
"It sounds to me that it was just a city-funded trip that some private people helped pay for," Lee said.
Lee said he couldn't comment specifically on this particular case without more details, but he didn't think the names are required to be open to the public.
Each year the city allocates $25,000 for sister-city expenditures, but part of that money is used to help bring international delegates to Macon.
City officials taking taxpayer-funded trips was a contentious issue during the July primaries, with City Council members as well as the public taking strong stands on each side. Some said the trips were a cultural benefit, while others said they were a waste of money.
Ross, who accompanied the mayor on the August trip, said the city's long history of having sister cities "is a great opportunity for us to move beyond our own boundaries."
"I don't believe we should have a relationship with places that only have done something for us," he said. "Maybe we haven't seen the economic benefits from it yet, but the relationships we've built can help forge forward as the world changes."
Elmina, on Africa's western coast, has a population of 27,000 and is known as a hub for technical industry and fishing. It also has a claims-processing unit for United Healthcare.
Dudley, who also went on the trip, said it afforded him the opportunity to visit another part of the world and bring back "invaluable experience."
"Going to Africa - it will motivate me to go out into the community and to give more to the people I serve," he said. "It also gives me an even better sense to try to help those who really need it."
Council members Stebin Horne and Jim Lee, who criticized the mayor for initiating the trip, said this week they would like to see how many more donations the city receives before commenting further.
Lee said he was mainly upset about the timing of the trip, which postponed the City Council's vote of a proposed property tax increase.
"If the mayor hasn't exceeded the amount of money appropriated for the sister-city program, then he's probably on pretty solid ground legally, but morally - the question is where he should have been spending money and was it necessary," Lee said. "That's something the people will more or less have to decide on their own."