Pittsburgh Councilman Corey O'Connor has proposed abolishing a $10,000 petty cash fund used by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his staff primarily for travel, saying he wants the mayor to abide by the travel policy that applies to other city employees.
The fund, which pays the bills for the mayor's city credit card and is linked to a checkbook, was created in 1995 by council resolution under Mayor Tom Murphy. On Tuesday, Mr. O'Connor introduced legislation to repeal the 18-year-old resolution, which would effectively close the account and transfer the balance to the general fund. It will be up for a preliminary vote next Wednesday and a final vote April 17.
"We're not saying there was anything wrong with this fund," he said. "But why not have the same checks and balances for all city employees?"
Marissa Doyle, spokeswoman for the mayor, defended the use of the fund, which is audited annually by the controller.
"The fund expenditures are audited by the City Controller and until last week, as far as we are aware, no issues had been raised about the fund by Controller [Michael] Lamb or any Controller since the fund's creation nearly two decades ago," she wrote in an email.
Mr. O'Connor said he started looking into the fund after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviewed the mayor's travel expenditures and found that the imprest fund allowed Mr. Ravenstahl and his staff to skirt the travel policy that binds other city employees and requires them to report travel and training expenditures to council. Mr. O'Connor and Councilman Patrick Dowd said they had no idea the mayor had a petty cash fund until they were contacted by reporters.
Mr. O'Connor said he didn't see why the mayor couldn't use the same process employed by other workers when they travel for city business.
When other city employees travel, they foot the bill, submit expense reports and then are reimbursed. Employees can also seek pre-approval and pre-payment of some trip expenditures. Their travel is documented in letters and quarterly reports to council.
But neither the mayor's credit card expenditures nor the imprest fund are reviewed by council, even when they cover travel for other staff members. Records from the controller's office showed that staff members sometimes notified council of travel that was covered by the imprest fund.
"Everything should be under the same umbrella," he said. "Everybody should be under the same rules."
The long-standing resolution that established the fund doesn't speak to what it's to be used for. And while officials have repeatedly said it's for "city business," they could point to no city policy or legal opinion that defined its use.
Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said the lack of a written policy about the fund troubles her. She said she would support Mr. O'Connor's effort.
"The ... problem I have with this fund is that it's not clear who's authorized to use it," she said.
But she also acknowledged that the process to get reimbursed for official city business can be lengthy and onerous.
"The technology or lack thereof that we use to process invoices can be a cumbersome process," she said. "We need to take a look at the way that's done to make it more efficient."
Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she's not necessarily opposed to the imprest fund, but she does believe that policies around travel expenditures need to be scrutinized.
"I'm not opposed to having accounts," she said. "I'm opposed to not have policies in place."
Councilman Ricky Burgess had not decided whether to support Mr. O'Connor's legislation, saying he wanted to hear from the mayor's office first.
"I do think there needs to be some flexibility so the mayor can travel," he said. "I don't want to make it so restrictive that the mayor can't travel representing the city when he needs to."