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Who’s paying for city officials’ trip to England to observe Formula 1 race?

Thursday, June 28, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin will send six high-level officials – including Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Manager Marc Ott — to observe the Formula 1 race in Silverstone, England next week but questions arose Wednesday about how much of the travel expenses the city would foot.


The officials will be on hand to “observe race logistics and bring best practices back to Austin,” said city spokeswoman Roxanne Evans.


Picking up the tab for at least a portion of the trip will be the Circuit of the Americas race track in Elroy, the unincorporated hamlet in southeast Travis County where the Austin F1 race will be held Nov. 16-18. Evans said the funding hasn’t been completely worked out, but city expenses not covered by the Circuit of Americas will come out of the departmental budgets.


Leffingwell told In Fact Daily that he wouldn’t go unless Circuit of the Americas paid for his trip. “I am not going at city expense, that is a condition of my going,” he said. “I was invited as a gift to the city.”


Other City of Austin employees expected on the Silverstone trip include Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, and the deputy director of the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office Rodney Gonzales.


Leffingwell noted that he was initially under the impression that only he and Acevedo were headed to the race. He added that their presence would be educational. “It is a city event, it is a major event, it’s very important that it go off without any hitches the first time. It’s on the world stage,” Leffingwell said.


At least three City Council offices remained unaware of the potential F1 trip as late as Wednesday morning.


Council Members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison expressed some concern. “I would like to understand the value to the city and its operation of having these high-level personnel go to Silverstone,” Spelman said.


I’ve only learned about city officials traveling to England for an F1 Race from a constituent; there has been no request to council for funding,” Morrison told In Fact Daily via email. “I am very concerned. This raises several issues and I am asking City Management to provide information.”


The Mayor added that, “from what I hear, (Silverstone is) very similar to the situation here in Austin. It’s a race track, it’s not a street race and it’s outside the city…so we go back and forth from the main population of the city to the race venue itself,” Leffingwell continued. “I haven’t been in on the planning. I just found out that everybody you named is going. But I know everybody you named has some major part in it, the fire and police chief and ….Rodney (Gonzales) is deeply involved in the planning operations, he works for Sue (Edwards), so there is some logic there.”


Members of the Travis County Commissioners’ Court rejected a similar offer on Tuesday. Despite the willingness of track officials to pay for the bulk of the costs associated with the trip, Commissioners Sarah Eckhardt and Karen Huber both expressed some concern about the wisdom of arranging an effort on short notice.


“You’d be leaving on the third (of July)…and you don’t even know who we’re going to hook up with. Aren’t those people really busy over there?” asked Huber on Tuesday. “Do you think you’ve got the time to get those relationships in place?”


According to testimony delivered at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, the trip was to begin on July 3 and continue through July 9. That schedule would have put two key Travis County public safety officials out of town for the fourth of July, a holiday which can bring an uptick in public safety incidents.


Though the two Travis County officials that would have traveled to England for the F1 race – an official with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Marshall Hershel Lee – both indicated that their presence was not required for safety response to run smoothly over the holiday, Huber was not so sure. “You’ve got the Fourth of July in the middle of that (trip), and you’ve got the Fire Marshall going overseas,” she said.


Though he was offered the opportunity to join the delegation, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe declined. “I ruled out the County Judge going because I thought that would look like a conflict of interest and super political,” he told his colleagues on Tuesday.


Biscoe, who seemed to be the point of contact for the track’s offer to county officials, brought the matter before to his colleagues before making a decision.


Austin’s Formula 1 race is set to run the weekend of Nov. 16. As part of today’s Council meeting, Council members will consider whether to approve paying up to $5 million for the construction of temporary terminal and customs facilities at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to handle international visitors expected to travel here for the event.

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