FREQUENT FLYERS: Why Twin Cities officials are hitting the road

- The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul believe national and global travel is a necessity to help its citizens, but critics think local politicians are padding their political resumes.


In December, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman went to Paris for the 21st Annual United Nations Summit on climate change. 

Reporter: "You think there will be a tangible pay off?

Coleman: "Absolutely, I've made climate change one of my top priorities."

According to Coleman, a mayor is like a CEO, and he said climate change is important, especially to Mississippi River cities, like St. Paul, that get left out of the conversation. 

"It's about raising awareness, it's about making sure that's part of the conversation on a global scale," said Coleman.

The St. Paul Mayor has gone on 46 out of state trips in nearly three years, costing the city only $10,760.  That's because 33 of those trips were paid for by the National League of Cities, including a trip to Morocco. Coleman was president of the group in 2014. He also went with a delegation to Germany, Sweden, and Denmark to develop a vision for what can be done with the old Ford plant site in St. Paul.  


In just two years in office, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has gone on 30 out of state trips, for a total of 65 days on the road. Taxpayers paid directly for two-thirds of that travel totally $35,509.

"When I go on the road, and I build the relationship, the relationship is stronger, and we bring the resources home," said Mayor Hodges.

She toured Minneapolis' sister city in Harbin, China, with council member John Quincy, to discuss "cold-zone tourism."

Her travels included a trip to the Aspen Institute in Colorado, for a fellowship with rising political stars, where they "study the underlying values and principles of western democracy."

And she's gone to Rome and Vatican City, one of 60 mayors from across the world to spend time with the Pope, on his dime, at a conference on climate change and human trafficking.

"Climate change does have an impact on low income people in particular which makes them more vulnerable to sex trafficking," Hodges said. "The Pope makes this case because of weather related events it leads to more migration."

But not all of her trips are so glamorous.  Her calendar is heavy on conferences and conventions, dealing with everything from poverty and racial equity to gun violence and terrorism.  

She went on seven trips to Washington DC and said they are more than photo-opportunities, they are about bringing home the bacon. 

"You look at the fact that I've brought in more than $6.5 million to the city, as well as the National Initiative, as well as the Tech Hire Program, Climate Action Champs. It's been time worth spending," she told the Fox 9 Investigators. (See: “Federal Money: The Check Is In The….”)

Hodges takes credit for some federal grants in which the application began under former Mayor Rybak.

And while city hall insiders give her credit for landing a Bloomberg Innovation Grant ($2.7 million) after courting former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that money is to study how equally the city's resources are distributed, not to actually increase those resources.

Nekima Levy Pounds became one of the Hodges sharpest critics during the black lives matter occupation of the 4th precinct, where the Hodges made enemies on both sides.

"I would like to see evidence that the mayor's travels have resulted in resources for the north side of Minneapolis," said Levy Pounds. "I would argue that trust is at an all-time low, and the mayor is going to have to do some heavy lifting." And she argued, you can't do heavy lifting if you're not around. 

Hodges has also lost support among unions and the business community after her embarrassing backtracking on the working families agenda. 

And council members talk privately about a lack of leadership from the Mayor's Office, her isolation, and having to move meetings to accommodate her busy travel schedule. 


Minneapolis City Council member Alondra Cano, not only went to France for the U.N. climate change conference, she also went to Barcelona, Spain, for a conference on farmers markets, visited Minneapolis' sister city in Mexico (Cuernavaca, Morelos) and two conferences for the National League of Cities in DC. Her travel tab since 2013 equals $9,522.

"I think it’s important to have informed council members instead of council members who stick in their own little backs and stick their necks in the sand.  I think being really active and engaged on these levels makes Minneapolis a leader," said Cano. 

Fellow Councilman, John Quincy hasn't left the country, but he's made 8 trips around the U.S. to study airport noise, including Palm Springs in February (2014), for a total of $17,383.

The city is even sending staff out on research expeditions. Policy Aide Robin Garwood went to the International Winter Cycling Congress in Winnipeg for $803, and he followed a delegation to Cuba to study composting and gardening, for $1971, bringing back such revolutionary ideas as compostable toilets.  


Government affairs expert David Schultz believes something else is going on with the frequent flyers. Climate change is far from a Mayor's typical job description of focusing on core services like putting out fires, catching bad guys, and making sure the streets are plowed.   He said some trips are a way for politicians to build up their resumes for higher office, to show they're players in the big leagues.

"Mayors and council members don't want to be mayors and council persons," said Shultz. "When tax payers are spending all this money on travel you have to really look for what you are getting back in terms of dollars and cents."


This link will take you to a slideshow used after Policy Aide, Robin Garwood came back from his trip to Cuba- SLIDESHOW

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