The Clayton County Board of Commissioners heard from the Finance Department about new travel procedures following an audit by Mauldin and Jenkins that had found existing travel procedures “inconsistent.”
The new procedures tighten up some travel expense reporting requirements, like requiring a copy of the agenda when commissioners travel to a conference, and making sure that county officials’ expenses are in line with federal IRS requirements and GSA per diem rates.
Interim Chief Financial Officer Stacey Merritt said she had mailed the new policy to commissioners “a week or two ago.”
According to Deputy CFO Kim Booth, “When Mauldin and Jenkins audited us, our travel policy was simultaneously too vague in areas, while too detailed in other areas—too specific. So we wanted to come into line and make sure that, you know, we solved that problem.”
Booth said the county’s new travel policy is largely modeled after the State of Georgia’s travel policy issued by the State Accounting Office: “We had to make some modifications but it’s very much in line with their policy, section by section.” She added that the policy is “in line with travel industry practices” and total cost management principles. It also follows Internal Revenue Service regulations for payments.
“We want to make sure that we’re getting the most cost-effective travel for the county and spending the least amount of money that we possibly can while fulfilling the need,” Booth said.
“If you see something that does not look in compliance then, and you are on the approval process, it is your responsibility to not approve it and not push it forward,” she said. “Finance will review the final claim. When it comes to us, it comes to us as a verification process, and when we verify it’s we’re going to make sure that everything is attached that must be attached, that everything is proper, that we have everything we need. And if the claim is not as it needs to be, Finance will reject it, and not only will we reject it, but we will send an e-mail to the traveler, as well as their designee if someone has filled out the travel form for them, we will make them aware of what needs to be changed and what needs to happen for it to be approved and be pushed through.”
New rules of the road
Here’s the new policy in a nutshell, as presented during Tuesday’s meeting:
- Advances and reimbursements must be:
- reasonable in amount
- made for travel only
- in line with actual costs incurres
- within policy limitation
- Travelers must turn in all expenses for reimbursement and reconciliation within 14 days after the event or trip
- The traveler or designee must submit the expense claim in MUNIS and attach all receipts as required by the policy
- Training on how to submit expenses is available on “The Buzz,” an in-house employee system
- Transactions must be consistent with departmental budgetary and project/grant guidelines
- Department heads are responsible for deciding whether travel expenses are necessary/relevant
- When a traveler turns in an expense report, it “must be approved through workflow by all approvers before reimbursement will be issues”
- “All approvers in the submission process are held accountable as to the appropriateness and reasonableness of the expenses”
- Approvers should deny any expense requests that do not meet approval guidelines
- The Finance Department will review “the final actual approved claim to verify all required items have been attached and the claim is filled out properly.”
- Incorrect claims will be rejected
- The employee and the person who entered the claim will get an e-mail telling them what needs to be fixed
Changes and clarifications
County employees, including elected officials, will no longer be allowed to book hotels on their personal credit cards. In other words, if everyone else is staying at a particular hotel at a particular rate, one person can’t book a Presidential suite at a different hotel for the same convention. Also going forward , county employees cannot upgrade their seating on a flight on the taxpayer’s dime and then seek reimbursement for the difference from the county:
- Finance will book directly with hotel vendors, using Clayton County’s credit card, to secure the reservation once a traveler has turned in the hotel accommodation form found on “The Buzz”
- If a flight is cancelled and the e-credit is returned to the traveler’s account as a credit, the traveler must reimburse the county the cost of the flight and/or the price difference between the flights that was credited to their account
- All travel expense submissions will now require a copy of the conference agenda, if applicable, attached as part of the supporting document
- “The overall, specific business purpose of the trip should clearly be displayed on the expense submissions.”
Forms and training
To make sure that everyone understands the new policy, Finance has added several forms to “The Buzz” that can be filled out online, as well as a checklist for submitting travel reimbursement requests:
- Air Travel Request Form
- Hotel Accommodation Form
- Mileage Form
- Lost Receipt Affidavit (requires printout and notarization)
Once the policy is approved, the Finance Department will hold in-person training classes for county employees. In addition, employees will be able to watch a video on “The Buzz” that will cover:
- the new travel policy
- new forms on “The Buzz”
- how to fill out an expense claim
- all required documentation to attach to an expense claim
District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin said, “Let me ask you this. One of the things that we do with my job I came from is, we have electronic receipts. Because you know, everybody—well, I had to start using Apple Pay. So I use Apple Pay for everything. So is an electronic receipt acceptable, or is it’s not acceptable? Because it keeps track of all of it. Will it be?”
“It would just need to be converted to a PDF,” Merritt replied.
“So it was printed, ‘the ‘Uber receipts,’ Felicia, ‘the Uber receipts,'” Franklin chuckled, wiggling her fingers in air quotes. “So the way that we’ve submitted those, those are fine, because those are traceable.”
“Yes,” Booth said.
“Okay. Because it’s even more specific than a printed receipt because that has the account, you know, how we paid it,” Franklin said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Booth replied.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Franklin said. “Thank you.”
District 1 Commissioner Alieka Anderson said, “I have a question, too. The bank receipts, you know, how you go to your, in your bank account, if you use, you have a receipt for, if you pay for a Uber or if you pay for food, can you just snap a picture of that?”
“Um, you’re talking about just like your bank statement?” Booth asked.
“Statement,” Anderson said.
“Um, no ma’am, because there’s not enough detail on that,” Booth explained. “Based on the IRS guidelines, and what the auditors have said that they need to see, no ma’am, that would not be acceptable.”
District 2 Commissioner Gail Hambrick said, “Somebody mentioned Uber, and I used Uber on our last trip, ACCG. But I was denied refund. Somebody explain that to me.”
“You were denied by… Finance?”
“It was rejected back to you?”
“I would have to check into that, because Uber is allowed,” Booth said. “Especially if you’re going into a city where it’s more—”
“We were in Savannah,” Hambrick said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Booth replied.
“And it was denied.”
“I would have to look into your specific claim to see why it was denied because it should have—”
District 4 Commissioner Demont Davis said, “I’m just concerned with the timeframing. Our timeframe on a lot of these is 30 days. I know, for instance, we have ACCG and NACO conferences that we know further out in advance than that. And sometime we need cheaper tickets when we do that as far as, and as well as hotel rates. Can we begin to look at that timeframe? My ticket to DC for NACO, we had a cheaper ticket than that, but because it wasn’t within the timeframe, the ticket had gone up. So can we begin to look at that so we can begin to cut some of those costs?”
Merritt said there could be some such exceptions.
“And I’m glad you said that, because that’s what we ended up doing for Denver,” Franklin interjected. “Because my aide was searching for the rates, and so I went a head and bought the ticket and then submitted it in. So I’m glad you stated that. That 30 days is not a good enough window. We missed out in Savannah on all the good rates, which is why I know all of us were stuck at a hotel so far away, and had to Uber, even though we drove in, because there was no place to park and all that kind of stuff, so I think we definitely need to get those conferences in as soon as they release the date. Not just for the Board of Commissioners. If somebody else is going to a conference, we need to go ahead and do it.
“Now let me say this, ” she added. “Shouldn’t nobody be traveling the world. We’re not the school system. We can’t go to Paris,” drawing laughter from Anderson, who left the school board to run for the District 1 BOC seat. “We’re not doing that.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Booth said. “We can look at those dates and if. weneed to make changes to them, we can do that.”
Merritt said, “This is a policy that we’ve brought back to you all for approval, so if you have any specific recommendations that you want us to adjust in the policy, let us know and we’ll bring that back before the approval.”
“I’m just glad to see y’all come up with a set policy,” Franklin replied. “Before now, it was just ‘what do I want to think up or pull out of the air today?’ So thank you so very much.”
Franklin had previously gotten into hot water over county procedures for her own travel expenses. Most notably, she got into an argument with former Chief Financial Officer Ramona Bivins, part of which was captured on security video at BOC headquarters.
The July 2021 dispute was over travel charges for which Franklin had sought reimbursement. When Franklin demanded a reimbursement check for hotel charges she had incurred on her own credit card, Bivins told Franklin that she had to go through the established workflow and that commissioners were not supposed to use their cards “for reservations that require a deposit or payment.” Bivins stated to JPD that Franklin had used a “snarky” tone and chanted “two days, two days” as she had walked down the hallway:
“I asked what was going on and turned around and followed her into the finance office where she proceeded to state she came to see if her check was ready. I asked what check and she stated in her usually smart voice, my reimbursement for the trip that the hotel had charged her card and that she had sent the documents to me. I advised her I had not received an email from her She stated back in her usually snarky tone she had sent [them] to Vickie. As I was searching my emails she walk[ed] to the end of Calvin’s desk and spoke to him [in] a very sweet calm tone, totally opposite of when she spoke to me. I told her again that I didn’t receive an email and she did not include me on the email she sent to Vickie. She said well I’m sending it now, when can I get my money. I initially asked her if Rochelle had entered her travel into the system and it would have to go through workflow; it would have to be approved by the Chairman or someone designated from that office, it will then come to me for approval and then A/P would cut the check. I reiterated this to her twice. I also told her that Commissioners should not be using their cards for reservations that require a deposit or payment, that they should contact Vickie to handle and I will be sending an email to all of the Commissioners reminding them of such. She stated that she followed the procedures my staff provided Rochelle and she will send them to me. As of the time of this response, it has not been received. Comm Franklin stated that she wanted her reimbursement in two days. I advised her that I can[‘t] guarantee that will happen. We both walked out of the office with her stating two days as we entered the stairway she continued to say two days and I again stated Commissioner I can’t promise that. She kept talking, stopping on the stairwell landing (I kept walking) and further stated that she wasn’t gonna go back and forth with me and that she isn’t the CFO and asked ‘aren’t you over the staff and the processes and policies?’ to which I responded I am. She said well as I said I’m not the CFO at which time I stopped, held up my hand, with my back still to her (not pointing my finger at her), and said Commissioner I’m not doing this with you. When she asked what I was talking about I told her I’m not doing her bad attitude and how she talks to people; I’m not doing it today. She kept stating she’s not the CFO and ranting about the procedures at which time I told her to take it to the Chairman, just take it to the Chairman. At this time we were walking through the stated, ‘Take it to the Chairman, just take to the Chairman.’ As we were both at the double doors I stated, ‘as a matter of fact we can go see the Chairman now’ to which she replied she didn’t work for the Chairman. As we were walking through the reception area to enter the hallway by your conference room she told me I need to not be disrespectful in front of staff, which was perplexing because we didn’t have any conversation in front of staff except when we were discussing the email and the process, which I was not disrespectful, did not use a negative tone of voice as she obviously did with me. After we went through the door I told her what she just did was disrespectful and she asked what? I told her making that comment in front of Ms. Cheryl was disrespectful. She kept walking down the hallway chanting two days. I went to Cheryl Ellis’ office and asked if Chairman was here because Katrina’s door was closed. While I was in Cheryl’s office she could still be heard chanting two days.“
Later, Franklin, Anderson, and Hambrick voted to terminate Bivins’ current contract and any renewal, but refused to state a reason why. Bivins has filed a federal civil rights suit against the county and the three commissioners, claiming that she was let go because her husband had backed Davis’ reelection in District 4 against a candidate who was allied with Franklin, Anderson, political kingmaker Mitzi Bickers, and then-Sheriff Victor Hill—Janice Scott.
Since Davis’ reelection:
- Bickers, who after being forced to resign from Atlanta City Hall for failing to report outside consulting income also served as Hill’s chief of staff at CCSO, was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison on tax evasion and money-laundering charges related to the Atlanta City Hall contract scandal.
- Hill was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for violating the civil rights of pretrial detainees in the Clayton County Jail. Before he left, he sold his house to and campaigned on behalf of current Sheriff Levon Allen, his handpicked successor.
- Franklin had several tax liens placed on her home for back taxes she owed before, during, and after her 2020 reelection run, and several citizens have asked State Attorney General Chris Carr to look into the affidavit she swore, which (under penalty of felony false statement) stated that she did not owe the State of Georgia any money when she ran for reelection.
- Franklin is due before the State Ethics Board on June 26 to answer for what appear to be personal charges on her campaign account, as well as for allegedly failing to report all her real estate holdings, accepting $3,950 in unreported donations in 2020, and failing to file seven Campaign Contribution Disclosure Reports as required by law. She was to have appeared in March but got a last-minute continuance.
- Other CCDRs show Franklin, Hill, and Bickers’ campaign consulting company Pirouette all transferred money through a nonexistent street address in southwest Atlanta.
- Shortly after The Clayton Crescent broke the news of the liens on Franklin’s house, her state tax executions were released, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue.
You will be able to watch the June 26 State Ethics Board meeting online on YouTube without having to incur your own travel expenses: