BLOOMINGTON — Mayor Tari Renner used his city-issued credit card to pay for a $28 business meal while he was on a leave of absence in September, prompting at least one alderman to question it ahead of a previously planned vote Monday on restricting elected officials' use of the cards.
Among the bills to be submitted to the City Council is a charge on his procurement card or p-card for a Sept. 16 purchase listed as a "business meal" he had with Ward 7 Alderman Scott Black at Swingers Grille in Normal. Renner, who reimbursed the city Oct. 12 for the expense, was officially on leave from office for unspecified medical reasons from Aug. 28 to Oct. 1.
While the mayor's use of the city credit card while on a leave of absence apparently does not violate the city's p-card policy or municipal or state laws, at least one alderman questioned whether it was an appropriate thing to do.
"I am disappointed that Mr. Renner would spend taxpayer money with his p-card while he was on leave of absence," said Ward 2 Alderman David Sage.
An ordinance on Monday's agenda would eliminate elected officials' use of the p-cards. Instead, officials would be required to pay for costs such as business meals out of their own pockets and then turn in receipts to seek reimbursement.
Renner is the only elected official in the city to carry one of the cards.
"Yes, there was a charge for lunch between Tari and Scott Black. It was on Tari's card and our (p-card) policy doesn't really have anything in it about being on a leave of absence," said city Finance Director Patti-Lynn Silva.
Renner said he wrote a $30 check to the city in hopes of it not becoming a issue.
While the policy outlines procedures and uses of the p-cards for cardholders and other city officials, it does not specifically reference elected officials' use of them, she added.
Renner said Thursday the issue was politically motivated and a distraction from more important issues.
"I was talking to Scott Black about the process of coming back, and just to be on the safe side I reimbursed the city for it," said Renner. "I've got a big fight over a multimillion-dollar street extension for the Grove subdivision to replacing a city manager to choosing an interim city manager, so this kind of stuff, honestly, seems so silly to me."
The fact that he was on leave was not relevant, he added.
"It's not an issue because I was never not mayor," he said. "There was never a week that I didn't do at least 15 hours to 20 hours of (city-related) work. People were always calling, there were always issues. You're really not mayor."
Renner submitted a letter dated Aug. 28 to City Manager David Hales, in accordance with the Illinois Municipal Code, informing Hales that Renner needed to take a temporary absence from his mayoral duties "due to medical-related" reasons and that he was turning over his duties to Ward 6 Alderman Karen Schmidt, who serves as mayor pro tem in the mayor's absence.
City attorney Jeff Jurgens said he does not think a provision in the Illinois Municipal Code that requires an elected official, upon vacating a municipal office, “to deliver to the successor in office all property, books and effects in the former officer's possession, belonging to the municipality” applies to a mayor pro tem filling in temporarily for a mayor.
“I am not aware of any legal support to suggest that the mayor pro tem is considered a successor under the law,” said Jurgens, who stopped short of going into any further details.
The Pantagraph requested comment from all nine of the city's aldermen Thursday night, but received responses only from Sage, Schmidt, Ward 3 Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe and Ward 8 Alderman Diana Hauman by late Thursday night.
"I am not sure why the p-card was used, but I'm glad to know the cost has been reimbursed," Schmidt said.
“If I were on leave and had a p-card, I would not have used it while on leave,” said Hauman.
Mwilambwe agreed with Hauman, saying, "personally, I would not have used it because it invites unnecessary scrutiny."
"I don't know the reasons for the mayor's use of his p-card on Sept. 16, and city policy did not provide guidance specific to the mayor's situation (medical leave) at the time," he added. "My hope is that once we approve this new ordinance on permissible City Council expenses, we will all be clear on what the expectations are moving forward."
A review of the city's p-card policies was prompted this summer when a city employee used a p-card to pay for a plane ticket to Japan for Renner's partner, who accompanied Renner as part of a sister-city delegation. She wrote a check to the city for reimbursement shortly after the tickets were purchased, and a state police investigation continues.