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Despite controversy, city paying to fly officials to England for grand prix

Friday, June 29, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin disclosed Thursday it will pay $5,556 to fly city officials next week to observe a Formula 1 grand prix race in Silverstone, England.


The city’s tab is for roundtrip airplane tickets for four high-level city officials to accompany Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Manager Marc Ott to attend the Formula 1 race as part of what has become a controversial trip organized by Circuit of the Americas. Circuit of the Americas is the operator of the Elroy track where Formula 1 will hold its inaugural Austin-area race Nov. 16-18.


Race track owners will pick up all travel expenses for Leffingwell and Ott and will pay the hotel accommodations for all six Austin city officials. Officials with Circuit of the Americas did not respond to questions about how much it would contribute to the trip by our deadline.


The disclosure of the city expenditures came Thursday afternoon as city officials attempted to push back against the growing controversy over the trip. In a hastily arranged media session,  Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald, Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards and the head of the city’s F1 project team Deputy Director of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office Rodney Gonzales did their best to explain the importance of the trip.


In addition to Leffingwell and Ott, Edwards, Gonzales, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr will round out the Austin delegation traveling to England.


“I think this (trip) is one of many key components,” Gonzales told In Fact Daily. “It’s really important for us to see and to witness a Formula 1 race event (in person).”


Though they received a similar offer, Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday declined to send any county representatives to the Silverstone race. With the exception of Ott and Leffingwell, who will sit in business class seats, all the Austin officials will fly coach.


In a memo from Ott to Leffingwell on Thursday, the City Manager offered an argument for the trip as well as a tentative schedule. “Within the last year, much has been learned, and much progress has been made,” wrote Ott. “Yet, we do not possess the first-hand knowledge and have not spoken directly with any other City who has hosted a Formula One event.”


“Because of the significance of this upcoming event and the broad impact it will have on City services, I felt it important that other key City officials who are involved in the City’s planning and preparation efforts also participate,” Ott continued.


According to the schedule provided to reporters on Thursday, city officials will leave next Thursday and will arrive in London on Friday morning. They will then proceed directly to the Silverstone track for a tour and meetings with British officials.


City representatives will also have the opportunity to review traffic plans and meet with public safety officials. They will return to Austin on Sunday evening after the race.


The schedule is more compressed than the one that was considered by Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday. The commissioners rejected the offer from Circuit of the Americas amid concerns that there wasn’t enough time to plan the appropriate meetings with British officials, along with other worries.


On Thursday, County Judge Sam Biscoe told In Fact Daily that the county had missed an opportunity. “It would have made sense to send (county officials) … over to really observe,” he said.


Still, Biscoe acknowledged there was a reason for his colleagues to hesitate. “We didn’t have a whole lot of time,” he continued, adding that there were “questions that didn’t have answers.”


For his part at least, Biscoe was ready to move on. He said that the county would put together the best possible plan without a visit to the Silverstone track. “This is a dead issue now,” Biscoe concluded.

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