Fort Worth

Next item of business: Smothered Pork chops. Why you’re paying for FW City Council meals

They dined on chipotle pork loin, beef lasagna and chicken salad. A fresh green salad, green beans almondine and new potatoes with dill were available as sides. To finish, an assortment of desserts.

That’s no date night menu.

It’s the fare City Council members enjoyed while mulling the finer points of pending litigation in an Oct. 23 executive session. The meal was served just after members called for an independent review of Panther Island and cost $596.33 from Z’s Café. Like most council meals, it was served between the council’s work session and full meeting that Tuesday.

Meeting meals have included smothered pork chops and meatloaf from Madea’s Down Home Cooking, grilled salmon and baked chicken from Tastebuds Eatery and King Ranch casserole from On the Border.

All together, Fort Worth paid a little more than $16,000 in 2018 for meals catered to council meetings for elected officials and staff, according to open records the Star-Telegram obtained. That doesn’t include meals for other meetings and retreats.

Mayor Pro Tem Dennis Shingleton said it might be time to adjust the meal to a “lighter fare” like sandwiches, salads or pizza.

“It’s not that you’ve been laboring all day and need a high caloric diet,” he said.

Shingleton, who first served on the city’s planning commission in 2000, said meals weren’t always served to council members, but the decision was made for efficiency.

The city has catered council meetings since at least 2003 when Mike Moncrief was mayor, Fort Worth City Secretary Mary Kayser said. With a budget limit of $17,000, various restaurants are contacted based on menu suggestions from the council and staff with an average of $500 per meeting for 30 servings.

What happens to the leftovers?

After the council and staff from the offices of the city manager, secretary and attorney eat, other city staff who need to stay for the meeting may eat. Anything left over is available for lunch the following day, Kayser said.

City Manager David Cooke said the practice was largely about saving time.

“I think you’re just trying to manage people’s time,” he said. “Time is valuable. If we’re going to conduct meetings that just run continuously — from the work session, to the executive session and into the full meeting — it’s just easier.”

Council work sessions begin at 3 p.m. and can stretch to past 5 p.m. before a break for the executive session. The regular meeting starts at 7 p.m.

Councilman Cary Moon, who has advocated for finding ways to save money in the city’s more than $1 billion budget, said he was glad the cost wasn’t high, but agreed with Cooke that catered meals were more about productivity than their culinary value.

“We’re not just sitting around a table enjoying ourselves. These are working meetings,” he said. “Could we switch to a box lunch and save some money? That might be viable option, but more people might step out of the meeting if they don’t like it.”

Bob Bland, a University of North Texas professor specializing in local governments, said catered meals are common for long government meetings that span meal times. In his experience the meals have largely been a sandwich and chips, though they can vary from city to city.

“Sometimes it’s also just about saying thank you for their time and service,” Bland said, noting that some councils and commissions work pro bono or for little compensation. “Do I think it should be a upscale meal? No. Nor do I think it should be chips and salsa every time.”

Fort Worth council members are paid $25,000 a year while the mayor receives $29,000.

The practice is fairly common across Texas, depending on when meetings are held, and Fort Worth’s meal ticket came in under some other large cities.

In Dallas lunches are catered for the Wednesday meeting, spokeswoman Nichelle Sullivan said. A five-year contract with Dallas-based food and beverage management company Culinaire is not to exceed $132,225. That averages about $800 per meal for 30 servings or about $22,400 each year.

In Austin, a spokesman said the budget is set at $75,000 for food at meetings where a quorum is present. While most of the funds cover lunch for council meetings, it also includes other food-related needs incurred by staff and council.

Arlington, however, spent little on food. Last year about $7,140 went to various meals for council meetings, serving between nine and 21 people, spokeswoman Susan Schrock said.

From compensation to saving time, there’s a number of reasons to feed local politicians. But Bland said there’s another motivator often overlooked when crafting government policy — camaraderie.

“They’re people. They have to work together and develop some level of trust,” he said. “Clear back to antiquity food has been a great way for people to come together, get over differences and talk.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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