A year ago, the nightly network newscasts were focused on the extravagant spending by the General Services Administration – specifically, a Las Vegas convention for its employees that cost taxpayers $820,000.
After congressional inquiries into the event, attended by 320 or so GSA employees, the head of the GSA stepped down, two senior administrators were fired, nine GSA employees were put on administrative leave, and the administrator most directly involved with arranging the event resigned.
The GSA scandal was still making headlines when employees of the National Marine Fisheries Service and its eight regional fishery management councils gathered at the swank Mauna Lani resort on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island.
Unlike the GSA gathering, there were no magicians or homemade MTV-style videos to entertain the crowd, but, on a per-capita basis, the Hawai`i conference matched the Las Vegas party and raised it – substantially.
It took nearly a year for NMFS, its parent agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council – host of the event – to respond to the several Freedom of Information Act requests made by Environment Hawai`i to determine the cost. (An appeal for information we believe should be available but was not provided is pending.)
So far, we’ve been able to tally costs for 66 of the people who attended at government expense. Travel, per diem payments, hotel rooms, and compensation (for council members) come to more than $236,000. (Compensation for those on the government payroll is not included.) That breaks down to an average of more than $3,500 per person, well above the $2,500 per-head cost for the GSA event.
Even if you factor out the $57,000 in compensation paid to the 20 council members in attendance – they received an all-expense-paid trip to Hawai`i, plus they were paid for the trouble of taking it – the average per-person cost still comes to more than $2,700, which again exceeds the cost of the GSA’s Las Vegas convention.
In addition to being paid for actual time at the CCC meeting, each council member also received compensation for the entire time spent on the road. Nor does that count what they received in per-diem payments or the cost of their travel.
Rates and totals of compensation for council members varied widely. In the case of Wespac council members, for example, three – McGrew Rice, Julie Leialoha, and David Itano – were paid a flat $1,000 apiece, while a fourth, Sean Martin, received $1,718.61. Wespac did not provide any information on the cost of travel for these four members, their hotel expenses, or per-diem charges. (Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds was asked in an email to explain the lack of information on travel expenses, hotel, and per-diems for those council members; no response had been received by press time.) Wespac council chair Manny Duenas of Guam was paid $4,010.09 for his presence, over and above the $4,400 paid for his travel, hotel, and per-diems. Stephen Haleck of American Samoa received an equal amount of compensation, with associated costs of just over $3,600. The two members of the Caribbean council who attended each received $4,907 as compensation, with total costs coming in at more than $9,000 each.
Seven of the eight councils were represented by two members, whereas Wespac had six in attendance.
Initial inquiries to NMFS about the selection of the high-priced venue were met with statements that the room rates charged by the hotel and the per-diem rates paid to participants all met with the government standard rates set for the Kohala Coast. At the time, the government room rate for the area was $180 a night, exclusive of taxes, while the per-diem rate, covering meals and incidental expenses, was $116.
Few other guests at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel pay the government rate, so it could be argued that the CCC was getting a bargain. However, the combined per-diem and hotel rates for the Kohala Coast are among the highest in the country. If you factor in the long travel time for most participants (time for which the per-diem meter is ticking), the cost of lodging and meals picked up by the government soars.
By tradition, the CCC meets twice a year. The first meeting is generally held outside Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland, where NMFS has its headquarters. The second meeting is hosted by one of the eight councils at a location somewhere in the council’s jurisdiction. Had Simonds wanted, the meeting could have been held in Honolulu; not only would allowable per-diem and hotel rates have been slightly less (by approximately $6 a day), but the cost of air travel would have been significantly reduced, as would travel time. Ground travel costs would also have been pared back, since most participants at the Kohala meeting either paid for a rental car or charged upwards of $160 for a shuttle ride from the Kona airport to the hotel and back.
Had the three-day meeting been held on the mainland, lodging costs for many participants would have been for two or three nights. However, in Hawai`i, most participants ended up charging the government for four or five nights. Some stayed longer, but had to pay for those extra nights. Although Kona is just an hour’s flight away from Honolulu, where Wespac has its offices, many of the Wespac staffers arrived three days in advance of the start of the CCC meeting and did not leave until two days after its close. The council paid hotel and per-diem costs for all.
A Free Lunch?
On April 30 and May 1, evening events were held for participants, but no billings from the hotel or any other party were provided through the FOIA process. The first event, a reception, was apparently held at the hotel; the second, an evening of food and entertainment, was held at the Hulihe`e Palace in Kona, requiring a fleet of charter buses to transport participants to and from the hotel. Despite repeated requests for information on the hiring of the charter buses, rental of off-site facilities, payment of caterers, etc., no records were provided. According to the Daughters of Hawai`i website, rental of the facility alone costs $2,000 (for events with 51 to 100 persons in attendance).
In one email from a NMFS staffer requesting information on the events, the staffer states that Simonds has informed her that, “Per our discussions, CCC participants and their guests who choose [sic] to attend the receptions paid for those events individually and they were not sponsored by any outside entity or the council.”
There is no way of verifying this, nor does NMFS seem interested in pressing the point. Although participants were apparently expected to pay for their dinners, whether the total amount collected was sufficient to cover all costs cannot be known from the responses of NMFS to the Freedom of Information Act requests. (In the unlikely event the amount collected exceeded costs, it would be interesting to know where the surplus went.)
Also, the participants were provided with a sumptuous breakfast buffet on May 2, replete with omelet stand, and a cold lunch buffet on May 3. In both of these cases, participants receiving per-diem payments were expected to adjust their reimbursement requests downward by an amount equivalent to the government allocation for such meals. According to the expense reports reviewed by Environment Hawai`i, most participants did not make such adjustments.
In any event, the question also remains as to how much the hotel-catered breakfast and lunch cost. According to the same email quoted above, Simonds informed NMFS that “the costs of the two meals served are included in this room rental” – i.e., the costs of renting meeting rooms. In the original agreement between the hotel and Wespac, however, there were to be no charges for meeting rooms, with free meeting rooms being one of several “concessions” offered to the council. (Other concessions included two upgrades from standard rooms to ocean-view one-bedroom suites – which would otherwise cost $450 a night – as well as complimentary WiFi, flower-lei greetings, and tropical juices upon arrival.) The concessions, however, were “based on the room, food, and beverage commitments included in the letter of agreement” – commitments that included four continental breakfasts and four lunches. Should those commitments change, the agreement says, the hotel could “re-negotiate” these concessions.
In the final bill, a room rental charge of $18,059.08 appears, along with a charge for audio-visual equipment rental of $1,947.81. There is no itemized breakdown of what is included in the $18,059 expense.
It would appear, then, that instead of free meeting rooms, the council paid more than $18,000 for two meals for the 60 or so participants – or an average of roughly $150 per meal.
In addition to the ballroom where the meeting was held, the council occupied space in several smaller meeting rooms, including a suite of offices designated for “Kitty Simonds, Executive Director.”
Finally, Simonds signed a check for $1,369.80 to Eric Kingma, one of the council staffers attending the meeting. No paperwork was provided to explain what this payment was for. Simonds was asked about it, but no response had been received by press time.
NMFS Gives CCC New Guidance on Public Meetings
At the Mauna Lani CCC meeting, council participants spent half a day behind closed doors, with NMFS personnel and the public excluded from observing the proceedings. The official meeting notice published in the Federal Register stated that the meeting would begin at 1:30 p.m. on May 1, but the agenda passed out to meeting participants said that the morning would be spent in a “council only” session.
There is no such thing, however, as a “council only” meeting, since the law that established the CCC provides that it consists solely of council members and their executive directors. Thus, a “council only” meeting still meets the definition of a CCC meeting, which by law has to be open to the public except under vary narrow circumstances.
Environment Hawai`i asked the NOAA Office of the General Counsel for an explanation of why the “council only” session was allowed. In June, Emily Menashes, the acting director of the NMFS’ Office of Sustainable Fisheries (the branch that nominally oversees the CCC) responded. “As the CCC is a relatively new body,” she wrote, “NMFS is continually working to ensure that this body meets the purposes of the amended Magnuson-Stevens Act and that we are providing clear guidance for the CCC meetings.” (The CCC was established in 2007 when Congress reauthorized the MSA.)
Environment Hawai`i requested copies of any records of the improperly closed CCC meeting. We were informed that none were kept.
“The Council members and executive directors attending the CCC meeting have found that it is helpful for them to meet informally … to share common experiences. These informal meetings are not considered meetings of the CCC,” Menashes wrote in an August response. “We are still working on guidance to the CCC regarding meeting notification, providing documents and considering public testimony at the CCC meetings.”
When asked if NMFS was intending to solicit public comment on the guidance, Menashes stated it was not. However, she wrote on November 21, “the guidance will be made public prior to the February 2013 CCC meeting.”
By mid-February, in advance of the CCC meeting held later in the month in Silver Spring, a document headed “Guidance to Council Coordination Committee Regarding Meetings” was available on a NMFS website.
Among other things, it would seem to ban the “council only” closed sessions; “Neither NOAA Fisheries, NOAA General Counsel, nor any other federal entity is a formal member of the CCC, and therefore the procedures described below apply regardless of whether federal personnel are present.”
Closed sessions are to be allowed only under the circumstances set forth in the MSA. Before any part of a meeting is closed, the guidance states, “the CCC should consult with NOAA General Counsel to ensure that the matters to be discussed fall within the exceptions to the requirement to hold public meetings.”
The next CCC meeting has been scheduled for later this month, in Washington, D.C. The group will meet both before and after a three-day conference called Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries, held at the Mayflower Hotel. The opening reception will be held Sunday evening, May 5, with meetings on May 6, and May 9-11. In between, CCC members will be attending the third Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries conference.
Any members of the public hoping to attend the CCC meeting would have to sit out three days, while the council members and executive directors attend the MONF conference. They could have attended the conference – but that would have required registration of $299 (not including hotel) as well as quick action: by the end of March, registration had already closed, with more than 400 participants.
So who is attending the conference? Among those registered are seven Wespac council members, seven staff (including Simonds), and four members of its Scientific and Statistical Committee. Also attending are Sean Martin, president of the Hawai`i Longline Association (and past council chairman), HLA’s director, Svein Fougner, and one of its attorneys, Peter Flournoy. Former council chairman Manny Duenas of Guam has registered as a representative of the Guam Fisherman’s Coop.
Based on a review of the affiliations of registrants, just two other regional council have more registered participants: the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is the official host of the event, will have 20 of its associates present, while the North Pacific council, which has jurisdiction over the rich waters of Alaska, is sending 19. The remaining five councils had registered a total of 48 staff and council members, for an average of just over nine per council.
Volume 23, Number 11 May 2013