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Thursday, June 25, 2009

$24,000 On Public Agency Credit Card: Too Much?

Posted by Matt Davis on Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 1:53 PM

Will Radik contributed reporting to this post...

Wouldn't it be nice to have $8,000 to spend on lunches and trips around the country, in addition to earning an annual salary approaching $200,000? The question is whether as the general manager of a public agency, such expenses are appropriate. The Mercury has been intrigued to watch the developing public battle between Metro Regional Council President David Bragdon and David Woolson, General Manager of the Metropolitan Exposition and Recreation Commission (MERC). As yet, it remains a battle between two Davids, with no clear victor having emerged:
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DAVID BRAGDON (LEFT) AND DAVID WOOLSON (RIGHT): ONE FAVORS THE SLINGSHOT, BUT WHICH, THE HEFTY CLUB?

Woolson's job at MERC is to manage Portland's Expo Center, Convention Center, and Center for the Performing Arts. MERC has a $40million annual budget and seven voluntary commissioners in addition to general manager Woolson. But MERC is also a subsidiary of Metro, and Bragdon wants Woolson out of the job. Bragdon says Woolson isn't earning his $184,363 annual salary, let alone his $15,000 bonus awarded last year by the MERC commissioners—who remain responsible for hiring and firing Woolson, until Bragdon and his fellow Metro Commissioners take expected control of the hiring process in early July. Get to the good stuff, after the jump.

Meanwhile, Bragdon has hit out at Woolson for moving MERC's offices downtown, upping expenses from $407,568 in 2007 to $840,000 this year, and has said Woolson places "public relations, slogans and staging" above "analysis, attention or coalition-building" in doing his job. As one of the three reporters in the room at a top secret* "executive session" meeting of MERC's commissioners in early May, I've struggled with how to present the story ever since. Evidently, my presence at the meeting wasn't coincidental, and a public airing of the issues would benefit Bragdon. But would it be fair on Woolson? After all, he wasn't even there.

*I say "top secret" because under Oregon law, reporters are allowed to take notes at "executive sessions," but not to report on what's said. Suffice to say most of what was said has since been repeated outside the room, as the spat has grown more public.

The Oregonian and Willamette Week have both run stories on the upshot of the meeting, including the resignation of two MERC commissioners last week unhappy with the tension between Woolson and Bragdon. I've struggled to figure out what I could add to the record, until we got Woolson's credit card receipts back from a public records request two weeks ago, and Will Radik and I spent some time adding up the results.

In addition to his salary Woolson spent $24,000 on his corporate credit card in three years between May 2007 and April 2009. Highlights include $1560.72 at the Heathman Restaurant, $1024.84 at Higgins, $583.85 at Southpark, $475.10 at the Newport Seafood Grill, not to mention $151.56 in tips. A good proportion of the lunches were spent meeting with Woolson's fellow MERC commissioners, not outside contacts. Woolson also spent $120 in the American Cowgirls bar on November 8, 2007. for a "meeting after Metro Council meeting" on the Headquarters Hotel. From Barfly's review of the (now-defunct) bar: "Dancing on the bar, a la Coyote Ugly, is very much encouraged, as is taking a spin on the amateurs-only stripper pole."

Then there's thousands of dollars in air fares and lodging to attend exposition conventions in Las Vegas (where Woolson stayed at the luxury Mandalay Bay hotel), Phoenix, Dallas and Boston. $209 in expenses from 2007 aren't categorized at all.

Bragdon declined comment on the fruits of the Mercury's research. Meanwhile Woolson defends the expenditures.

"We use credit cards extensively to pay for vendors and all kinds of expenses," he says. "It's tied into our software system. The expenses I have for meals and entertainment are approved by the commission as part of the budget process."

As for meeting his fellow MERC commissioners for nice lunches at the Heathman, instead of at Starbucks—where Woolson met for a brief interview with the Mercury on Tuesday morning, June 23, Woolson responds: "Understand that the MERC commissioners themselves are very busy professional volunteers that provide time and expertise for free to this public entity, and that a lot of times the only time I can get on their schedule is for breakfast or lunch."

"Those restaurants are appropriate venues for a business lunch," Woolson continues. "After the amount of time that they do give us, I think it's an appropriate expense and that the public and the commission is getting a good deal for the time that these guys give us."

Woolson couldn't provide an explanation for the $209 in uncategorized expenses from 2007, adding that they were from two years ago. He says American Cowgirls was a "pretty average sports bar," and that it was the only place near Metro to talk about the Convention Center Hotel after a 15 hour day. "There was nothing seedy about that establishment," Woolson says.

So: Who's side are you on?

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