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Pacific's mayor's credit card use to be investigated
Weary of the lingering controversy, the Pacific City Council voted 4-3 at a special meeting Monday night to allow an outside investigative agency to determine if Mayor Richard Hildreth committed a crime by violating the City's credit card policy.
Hildreth was recently the focus of a lengthy probe and audit for allegedly using the City credit card for personal use. Its significant question — the mayor's purchase of his wife's airline ticket in 2007 to New Orleans, where he was to speak at a national restoration conference.
The completed audit by Canfield and Associates – the City's insurance company – found that Hildreth had employed the credit card for personal use by purchasing the airfare, but that he had reimbursed the City in full for the purchase.
Hildreth (pictured) said he paid for the ticket in advance and consulted with the City finance director on how to proceed.
"There was no intent to break or ignore any laws," he said.
But, as City Council President John Jones pointed out, the use of the City's credit card for personal use is specifically prohibited under City ordinance. By narrowly passing the motion to refer the matter to an appropriate investigative body, the City Council can put aside the time-consuming dispute and move on to other matters at hand, he said.
"This is just a procedure, turning it over and letting it be reviewed by an agency other than us," said Jones, who supported the motion. "As far as I am concerned, it's laid to rest. As far as the council ... we don't have to address it anymore."
Added Councilmember Joshua Putnam, who voted against the motion: "As a council, we can't pardon (Hildreth) and we can't prosecute him. That's not our job. Our role is to set clear policy, which we have now done ... and to maximize public transparency."
In the wake of the controversy, the City Council has since imposed clearer, more stringent and precise credit card policy and procedures.
Councilmember James McMahon supported the motion, acknowledging the mayor probably took advantage of the City's ill crafted policy.
"When you look at the credit card use, the way credit card policy and the purchasing policy read before, (one could say) that yeah, he probably could do what he did. Should he have? In my opinion, no," McMahan said. "But could he? Yeah. The insurance report said exactly that."
The Canfield and Associates audit reviewed the mayor's travel expenses, donations and reimbursements for the years 2006-2011. The final report found the mayor in compliance with the City's travel policy and "that more likely than not, Mayor Hildreth routinely reimbursed the City any money that he received as a reimbursement from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for trainings."
Hildreth denies using the card for personal expenses but only for frequent travel to emergency training. He claims the attacks are politically motivated. Hildreth is seeking reelection to a third term in office come November.
Putnam, who sits on the City's finance committee, said he doesn't believe there is evidence to show that Hildreth had any intent to defraud the City, and he doubts the mayor will face prosecution.
"The mayor's actions may have violated the law or policy, even though it wasn't intentional. I don't think he intentionally violated the law or policy," Putnam said. "We had a poorly drafted credit card and purchasing policy. He pushed it to its limits but was within the reasonable legal interpretation of that policy."
Hildreth understands the Council's actions and wants the investigation to swiftly move ahead. He said he has cooperated every step of the way.
"It's probably going to drag on. ... I want this whole thing answered, and I want citizens to know there is no problem here," he said.
Hildreth is one of the nation's mayoral leaders in prescribing emergency preparedness plans for other cities, institutions and leaders to follow. Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed him to serve on the Washington State Emergency Management Council.
"The emergency management training I have taken is appropriate and in the public interest," Hildreth insisted. "It's not FEMA's responsibility to plan, prepare or train cities to deal with disasters. It's the local government's role. ... It's our responsibility."
Monday's marathon meeting drew support and opposition from several citizens.
Reva Bryant is convinced Hildreth broke the law.
"The one time that he bought the ticket for his wife was a crime, pure and simple," she said. "It's a misuse of public funds. That credit card belongs to the City of Pacific."
Audrey Cruickshank is concerned about how the City processes and keeps financial records. She is among several Pacific residents critical of the mayor's activities and ethics, and skeptical of the thoroughness and accountability of City bookkeeping.
But the debate also drew strong support for the major and heavy criticism for the council's lack of oversight.
"You folks are wasting time on this. It's a whole bunch of nothing. Your record keeping, your policies are very unclear, not specifically written up," John Richardson told the council. "You don't have anything here. What you need to do is let it go. In the future, you need to have your policies specifically written out, recorded, dated."
Russell Tyree, a Pacific resident since 1974, is concerned that the controversy will bleed into the mayoral race this fall.
"Look, the policies are corrected, the council has dealt with it. There was no evil intent," he said. "Let's just forget it, put it away and move on."