Cost, distance of North Richland Hills council retreat are questioned

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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NORTH RICHLAND HILLS -- The City Council's two-day retreat last month at a Pottsboro resort and conference center has raised questions about whether such meetings justify the cost and the inconvenience to residents who may want to attend such public events.

The council and city executives met Feb. 8-9 at the Tanglewood Resort and Conference Center, about a two-hour drive from North Richland Hills. The meeting, which was posted on the city's website with a link to the resort, was held to set goals and objectives for the city and how to accomplish them.

The meeting cost about $6,000 for housing, meals and other expenses for the 27 people who attended, City Manager Mark Hindman wrote in an email. The council has been hosting such annual meetings for about 20 years, Hindman reported.

Businesses and some governments often schedule retreats to raise morale, reward good work or to provide a relaxed environment to help participants generate ideas to improve a company or agency.

Government retreats have come under fire from watchdog groups that say these meetings inconvenience people who sometimes must drive hours to attend and that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for meetings that can be done at local facilities.

The meeting's cost is a fraction of the city's $40.7 million annual operating budget, but it comes at a time when the council raised the city's tax rate 4 cents to 61 cents per $100,000 of assessed property valuation. It was the first time since 1993 that the council raised the tax rate, saying that it was needed to pay voter-approved bonds for the planned $70 million municipal complex.

Cindy Carriger, a resident and local Tea Party member, wrote an email to Mayor Oscar Trevino expressing disappointment that the retreat was being held away from the city.

Her email was forwarded to Hindman, who responded by email that the meeting was properly posted and open to the public.

Carriger said that anyone who wanted to attend the meeting would have been inconvenienced by the drive. She added that the agenda was minimal and that if council members felt the need to get away from their usual surroundings, they could have met at the city's recently opened recreation center. The center has meeting rooms.

"If you stay here, it costs us nothing," she said.

Worthwhile expense

Trevino said that the retreat was worth the cost. It gave the participants a chance to talk about such topics as parks, development along Texas 26 and the future of rail service in the city.

"It takes us out of our environment and forces us to participate," Trevino said.

He said budget meetings are at the city library, and typically no one from the public attends except reporters.

Bob Bland, chairman of the Department of Public Administration at the University of North Texas in Denton, said such retreats are common among city councils, school boards and other local government groups. He said they can help generate ideas by setting the tone that this is not an ordinary meeting and that they can help cement relationships among the participants.

"That's not inconsequential," Bland said "That's really important." He said he asks three questions when deciding whether a council has gone overboard: Is the meeting more than a day's drive away? Is the meeting held infrequently? And is the cost modest?

Euless stopped having its annual retreats a few years ago at a ranch in Kauffman after receiving complaints from a local Tea Party member, Euless City Councilman Leon Hogg said. Hogg said that the discussions were more intense and participants got to know one another better during the ranch retreats.

"It worked real well," Hogg said.

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