A long-standing Rochester custom of charging the taxpayers for a monthly City Council meal at a local restaurant was an improper use of public funds and a potential violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law, the state auditor has ruled.
The meals, which ended last fall after complaints, totaled about $10,000 over the past three years as the mayor, council members, city administrator and assorted staff met at spots such as the Red Lobster and the Olive Garden to hash out city business.
The meals broke Internal Revenue Service reporting rules because they weren’t recorded as taxable income for the council members, determined David Kenney, legal counsel for the state auditor. He told the city in a five-page letter to stop holding the meetings and to ensure that any other meals provided to city employees comply with tax law.
The “council dinners,” a fixture of city politics that apparently goes back decades, were questioned last year by Council Member Nick Campion, who wrote in the local news blog The Med City Beat that he stopped attending because the meetings felt inappropriate.
Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede reluctantly suspended the meetings last fall and compared Campion’s boycott to National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem.
Brede, who is recovering from double knee surgery and working half days, said Tuesday that he hasn’t had time yet to read Kenney’s Nov. 7 letter. He said he planned to read it, but also wondered if there’s another way to fund the dinners, which he called valuable.
It appears that, at least in the past, some council members may have used the dinner meetings to privately discuss city issues. A 1989 Rochester Post-Bulletin article that Campion found quotes a former council member saying he uses the dinner meetings to “thrash out” issues before taking them public. That would be a violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law, which allows few exceptions to the rule that any gathering of the City Council be publicly accessible.
Council Member Michael Wojcik, who also began boycotting the meals before they were suspended, said the dinner meetings were “pointless” and too often felt like a private gathering. Campion characterized the meals as an innocent process handed down from another time, saying he didn’t see them as indicative of a wider problem in Rochester politics.
“I have no interest in pursuing this further,” he said. “I will say it pained me in some ways to write the note, because I do understand the aspect of camaraderie.”
Campion said city officials shouldn’t be asked to reimburse the city for the meals, since they were following staff recommendations, and Brede said he’s not planning to reimburse the city, either.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry than to keep arguing over this,” he said.