SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - Irresponsible spending of taxpayers' money and long-term community investment are two different labels being used to describe the Shreveport-Caddo Parish Metropolitan Planning Commission's spending the past few years.
It was this same debate that nearly cost nine MPC employees their jobs last year, according to its executive director, Mark Sweeney.
The night of Dec. 13, Sweeney walked out of a Shreveport City Council meeting and past reporters without uttering more than a single sentence.
Back then, the council originally voted to cut 30 percent of the MPC's budget when they were deciding how the city's 2017 budget would look.
The council overturned that vote 45 minutes later after four different reconsiderations.
Sweeney said that cut would have forced him to fire nine of his 20 employees who work to plan the physical development of Shreveport.
According to the MPC's description on its website, it is "responsible for the orderly physical development of the City of Shreveport and the surrounding area of Caddo Parish known as the planning limits (approximately five miles beyond the incorporated boundary). The jurisdiction of the MPC covers an area of approximately 307 square miles."
But when District E Councilman James Flurry heard that December's proposed cut would have laid off that many employees, he said he didn't believe it.
"And I still don't believe it. We haven't experienced any growth to speak of in the city, so where is he getting all this work that he claims he'd have to lay people off? It's just nonsense."
Flurry spearheaded that $575,000 cut to the MPC because the city funds more than 66 percent of the MPC's $1.6 million annual budget.
He is concerned with the way the commission spends taxpayer dollars.
"Here we are in the city and cannot give our people raises, and yet we see with the MPC, the sky's the limit," Flurry said. "The board, to me, is not watching out to where the funds are."
The same concern is shared by Bossier City citizen John Settle, who is suing Sweeney and the MPC for allegedly violating public records laws.
Settle said he filed a public records request with Sweeney and the MPC on Dec. 7 to learn the MPC's office expenses for the past three years.
"Expenses for office furniture, fixtures, equipment, remodeling, painting, etc."
According to the documents, Sweeney's first response showed more than $2,000 was spent on the MPC's office.
Settle sent another public records request to Shreveport city attorney William Bradford on Dec. 14.
"He said that that answer wasn't correct," Settle recounted. "When I sent the second same public records request to Mr. Sweeney and said: 'Mr. Sweeney, you're not being truthful with me. I want the full documentation.' Then he sends me over $80,000 in expenses."
This difference between the two requests is the reason Settle is taking Sweeney and the MPC to court.
"I want a judicial finding, ruling, that the MPC, without good cause, violated the Public Records Act," Settle said. "Mr. Sweeney's going to have to explain, in court, the difference between $3,000 and then, when he was pressed hard, $80,000."
KSLA News 12 cross referenced its own public records request for the same expenses with Settle's and discovered similar findings: More than $85,000 spent on office equipment and supplies by the MPC from 2014-16.
After two weeks of attempts, Sweeney agreed to interview with KSLA News 12 and give a tour of the MPC office in Government Plaza in downtown Shreveport so we could take a look for ourselves.
While Sweeney said he could not comment on Settle's lawsuit because it's pending litigation, he openly took KSLA News 12 through the offices.
"I would challenge you to walk through my office today and see if you see $80,000 worth of new furniture. You won't find it," Sweeney said.
According to Sweeney and dozens of invoices over the past three years, the MPC's largest expenditures included hundreds of dollars for new computers, projectors and other equipment.
Among those expenditures:
- $7,065 on a Kyocera Printer
- $5,214 on an Aquos display board
- $1,677 on a computer
- $1,283.36 on software and hardware upgrades
- $649.99 on an Epson Pro Projector
- $600 on two new printers
- $599.99 on a laptop
- $249.99 on an 80" manual projection screen
- $139 on an easel
- $923 on a printer, etc.
"We had stuff that was broken and was falling apart, and we came in and gradually made those improvements," Sweeney said.
"The screen that you have behind you is something we use. We will work with developers to help explain the process they need to go through."
Sweeney said when he took over as executive director 2.5 years ago, his predecessor had not done much to keep the MPC relevant in its goals to further development in Shreveport and the rest of Caddo Parish.
"My predecessor had not made hardly any investments in improving the equipment and the professional atmosphere of this organization."
While Sweeney argues that the purchases needed to be made, other invoices show the MPC bought other items for around the office, including:
- Multiple $209.99 chairs
- 2 Laurus Guest chairs costing $629.38
- 1 Park Avenue sofa costing $1,106.69
- Decorations like 1 Stoney Bowl and 1 terra cotta vase totaling $83.05
- $455 in custom blinds
- 2 Queen Anne wing back chairs totaling $644
- Two 22" Generoa pillows totaling $159
- 5 paintings and two statuesque horses totaling $998.40
- 2 black chairs costing $419.98
- A half-dome mirror costing $86, etc.
"And most of that, which you will find, that's the smallest item on that list," Sweeney said. "That was actually just less than $2,600 across three fiscal budgets."
He was quick to point out how they spent money while taking KSLA News 12 through the MPC office.
"One of the larger expenditures was for partitions," Sweeney pointed out. "These are not cheap, but we created partitions so that we could have greater privacy for our employees to be able to do their work."
The terra cotta vase stood perched on a lonely end table behind Sweeney's desk
The half-dome mirror is attached to the ceiling in the office's entrance.
Sweeney said that mirror needed to be placed there.
"We did have to add this in because we had someone that was threatening one of our employees and trailing them. And so we put that in so we could see people coming," he explained.
"I've spent about $28,000 per fiscal year" on the MPC's office expenses, he continued.
"That actually represents less than 2 percent of my budget per year. I would not think anyone would see that as being exceptional costs. It's an investment so we can serve the public better."
Settle noted that his lawsuit is more about transparency than spending.
"When they don't comply with a Public Records Act, then you wonder what other laws they're not complying with."
Sweeney said the MPC is an open book. "So if someone wants to come look at what we've got, I'll give them the same tour that I gave you."
But it's not just office spending.
City Council members also are concerned with what the MPC spends on travel.
Further public records requests by KSLA News 12 on the MPC's travel expenses in the past three years led to the discovery that members take multiple trips to American Planning Association Conferences every year.
From 2014-16, different MPC board members and staffers took eight trips to national APA conferences in San Diego, Atlanta, Phoenix and Seattle.
They also traveled to state APA conferences in Houma, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Over all these trips to the conventions, MPC board members and staffers spent $66,287.25.
While it is unclear what every MPC member spent their money on, the public records requests show how the traveling MPC staffers rank in spending:
- Alan Clarke: 6 trips and $10,561.56
- Mark Sweeney: 4 trips and $10,047.74
- Stephen Jean: 5 trips and $7,564.86
- Roy Jambor: 5 trips and $6,030.79
- Ebony Mapp: 2 trips and $2,145.29
- Reginald Mims: 2 trips and $1,850.83
- Adam Bailey: 1 trip and $1,063.17
- Nancy Majure and Dara Sanders: 1 trip each and $225 each.
Here's how the traveling MPC board members rank in spending, according to the documents obtained through public records requests:
- Dale Colvin: 4 trips and $7,188.85
- Ronnie Remedies: 4 trips and $5,394.25
- Winzer Andrews: 2 trips and $3,409.34
- Nancy Cooper: 3 trips and $1,775.39
- P. Pennywell and Levette Fuller: 1 trip each and $1,018.50 each.
- Alan Berry: 1 trip and $1,009.83
- Lea Desmarteau: 2 trips and $714
Records show Sweeney spent more than $3,000 in Seattle and Phoenix and more than $1,000 in Houma and Baton Rouge.
When asked Sweeney where all that money was going, Sweeney said:
"If it's to those trips, it was the national conference and the state conference. Airline tickets, it's hotel stays, it's expenditures for eating out as well as for car rentals, in some cases," he said.
"The basics of what is allowed through the finance department. When I work with the city finance department, there's only certain things we can spend money on. We adhere to that just like a city employee would do. We adhere to those same principles."
Sweeney said MPC members don't "wine and dine" because, under these same guidelines, they're not allowed to spend city money on alcoholic beverages.
He also noted that the APA conferences provide required training hours for MPC board members and staffers.
"The American Institute of Certified Planning Designation. And in order to maintain that certification, you have to get credit hours. And the best way to get those credit hours is to go to the state and the national conference."
Conferences aren't the only way planners can be trained.
Joanne Poret, director of the APA's North Louisiana section, said: "You are not required to attend conferences. However, we are required to maintain our certification ... . We have to acquire 32 credits over a two-year period. ... There are other seminars and webinars available."
Sweeney responded: "And we do try to do that because you've got to understand that not everybody gets to get through the national conference.
"Sometimes the state APA conference will offer something that's not during the state conference that we can get credits for, but it's not on a regular basis and we don't always have access to it. And 99 percent of the time, it's in the southern part of the state, which defeats the cause. 'Then, why don't we just go to the state conference'?"
Under his leadership, Sweeney said, he's now restricted the MPC to two APA conferences a year and budgeted $11,000 less for travel in 2017.
For comparison, KSLA also filed public records requests for the Bossier City-Parish MPC's 2014-16 travel expenses.
While the Shreveport-Caddo Parish MPC spent more than $66,000 on travel in those three years, the Bossier City-Parish MPC budgeted $21,000.
"Go over and count the number of staff members they have," Sweeney pointed out. "I think they only have two or three. I have 20. I cover a much more dense population.
"They do a great job. ... But in terms of comparing their size to us, it's like apples and oranges."
Sweeney says every dollar spent is an investment back into the community.
But Flurry said he'll fight to change Shreveport's contribution to the MPC.
"Too many streets that potholes need fixed. And we haven't given our people a raise since '07, and that's got to be addressed," the councilman said.
The Caddo Commission funds 12 percent of the MPC budget; the remainder comes through application fees.
Flurry thinks that a deal must be reached under which the Parish Commission picks up more of the MPC funding from the city and that the MPC's spending habits need changed.
Sweeney said everything the MPC spends money on needs to be considered an investment in the development and quality of life in Shreveport and the rest of Caddo Parish.
"You could always save money by standing still, but then you're standing still," he said.
"You always have to look at all of this as an investment. We're investing in a way that we can present a better image to the public when they walk in the door. And we're investing in our employees so they can do a better job for the public.
"If you don't look at it that way," he said, "then you miss the whole purpose of why we're here.
"Our goal here at the MPC is to improve the quality of life of this city and this parish and to enhance its economic development opportunities."
Flurry said: "We've got to do something different; and I don't want to spend my money on the MPC."
Settle said he expects a court date with Sweeney and the MPC at some point this month.
Sweeney said the MPC will continue to work on the Unified Development Code, a first-ever effort to bring Shreveport and Caddo under one zoning and subdivision ordinance.
The code would allow more multi-use developments for retail and residential use properties and would make the process of development easier, he said.
The City Council approved the code in February, and it will be reintroduced to the Caddo Commission on April 20.
Sweeney hopes to have the code approved and implemented by May 15.