Councilwoman Helena Brown hired a private attorney to sit in on meetings with her publicly paid attorney, then tried to bill taxpayers for it.
Records obtained by the Houston Chronicle reveal that Brown sought reimbursement for $850 she paid lawyer Kevin Colbert for meetings she had with the mayor and City Attorney David Feldman, whose job it is to give council members legal advice. The fee also covered Colbert’s attendance at a budget meeting.
Feldman denied the reimbursement request because the city only pays for outside lawyers for council members when it would be a conflict of interest for his office to handle the case. Brown declined to comment on why she hired Colbert.
Brown also sought $2,108 in gas money for William Park, a volunteer adviser to the councilwoman on fiscal issues. The request was denied. Feldman said such a reimbursement would violate city policy on expenses for non-employees.
Brown asked the city to reimburse mileage expenses for Park. The $2,000 request exceeds what most full-time paid council staffers accrued in mileage during the same period. The city does not reimburse its volunteers – including more than 1,200 people who sit on boards and commissions – for expenses related to their service, though the mayor or her designee can approve travel-related expenses in individual cases for what city policy calls “unpaid persons.”
“The very essence of being a volunteer is you’re doing it as a free public service,” Feldman said.
Brown said, via email, “Mileage or gasoline use for city purposes should be a reimbursable expense indiscriminate of who actually incurred the expense; the mileage reimbursement request denial was not disputed due to our focus on more pressing matters.”
There are other things in the story, but this is the main item. One can certainly make the case that the city should reimburse volunteers for expenses related to their service. If you’re giving your time and expertise to the city, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. But city policy is to not do so, which is also perfectly reasonable given the likely expense and the effort needed to verify the requests made by all these people. Given that, I don’t see what Brown’s beef is. Park is a volunteer, volunteers aren’t eligible for reimbursement, end of story. Either hire him as an employee, or don’t submit his expenses for reimbursement. Putting forward a proposal to change the city’s policy rather than trying to get an exception made for this one person is also a viable option.