County paid staffers to golf, investigation finds

After inquiry, water employees told to take vacation instead for golf outing

Public money subsidized an all-day golf outing in September where water department employees from around the state enjoyed food, beer and door prizes, a Dayton Daily News investigation has found.

Although they later reversed course following inquiries from the Daily News, Montgomery County Water Department initially allowed 16 employees, including its director, to attend the Sept. 18 golf outing while on the clock.

Six City of Dayton employees who golfed in the event took vacation time to do so. But the city water department also sent 14 employees to serve as “logistical support” for the event, which kicked off a four-day water service industry conference held in Dayton.

Montgomery County officials called the golf outing a “networking event”, and said participants paid their own green fees and other expenses. Dayton officials said the conference brought $200,000 in economic impact to the area, and that they hope by organizing a successful social gathering, the conference will return to Dayton in the future.

But representatives of government watchdog groups said networking under a relaxed setting as part of a conference is understandable but it’s difficult to justify using public funds on a full-day golf outing during times of lean budgets for both households and governments.

“Conferences like that probably are important. But in this day in age, you’ve gotta be careful and be cognizant of how this looks if people find out about it,” said Greg Lawson with the Columbus-based policy group the Buckeye Institute.

Montgomery County Water Department Director Pat Turnbull first told employees they didn't have to take time off to attend the outing, held at Dayton's municipal Kitty Hawk Golf Center, according to an email obtained by the Dayton Daily News shows.

But weeks later after a public records request about the event from the Daily News, department officials reversed course and docked those employees for vacation time instead. The employees had been paid a total of $3,500.

While no Dayton workers golfed while on the clock, the city sent 14 employees who worked a total of just under 80 hours with duties including coordinating the event, photography and chauffeuring a photographer around the course in a golf cart. The amount the employees was paid wasn’t immediately available, but 80 hours of pay for a typical water department employee is around $1,600.

An event flier said the golf outing began at 10 a.m. and concluded width an awards ceremony at 4 p.m. It cost each four-person golfing team $300 to participate.

About 200 people attended the outing, according to an event registration form. A cookout lunch was served, and reporters who attended the beginning of the event observed a beer cart, sponsored by Michigan-based Dixon Engineering, Inc., driven by women wearing pink T-shirts reading “beer wench” on the back.

County officials declined several requests for interviews about the event. But a written statement from interim Montgomery County Administrator Joe Tuss referred to the golf outing as a “networking event” and said county employees paid their own way.

City and county staff also helped with the rest of the conference, held at a downtown hotel, which consisted primarily of classes and lectures related to water industry issues. The conference included competitions for water-meter reading and water-line tapping, as well as extracurricular “spousal events” such as chocolate making and shopping trips, according to a conference agenda.

“After reviewing payroll records, the Department of Environmental Services made corrections to the payroll of several employees who attended the golf outing,” Tuss said in his statement. “These employees took vacation or paid personal leave for the hours during which they attended the golf outing, in keeping with Montgomery County policy.”

Time cards for 16 Montgomery County employees who had reported working on the day of the golf outing — eight of whom whose work hours that day were categorized as “training”— had been paid a total of $3,500 on Sept. 18. However, those employees’ cards were changed by hand to retroactively show they took vacation time or paid leave on that day instead.

Among those who initially had been paid to attend the event was Turnbull, Montgomery County’s environmental services director. He was part of a four-person golf team of water department employees. Turnbull has worked for Montgomery County since April 2011 and is paid $115,000 a year to manage about 280 environmental services employees.

Turnbull said before the golf outing that employees who attended the AWWA conference “could do the golf outing and not have to take a vacation day or anything,” according to a July 2 email written by his secretary, Janel Regelski.

The Daily News requested that email as part of a public records request after first obtaining it from an independent source. But county officials first said it had been deleted, even though the county’s public records policy requires that all county emails be kept for 60 days and then be transferred into “archival storage.”

Turnbull declined an interview request from the Daily News.

Six City of Dayton employees golfed in the event, but they requested vacation time.

The city’s water department also sent 14 people to the golf outing, including two employees who co-coordinated the event and worked there for about 10 hours each, according to Dayton officials. Two water department employees served as photographers, and one employee who helped with setup and serving breakfast also drove a photographer around the course in a golf cart.

Another four handed out door prizes and helped serve lunch and clean up after it was done. The rest worked less than three hours each, helping with morning registration and delivering or picking up a promotional trailer that dispsened water.

City manager Tim Riordan said in an email that Dayton provides staff support to ensure any conference held in the city is successful.

"We were happy to help coordinate and conduct a successful golf outing at one of our City golf courses. We hope the overall experience the conference organizers and attendees had in Dayton — thanks in large measure to the hard work of City employees — will convince the AWWA conference with over 700 attendees to return in future years and further contribute to our economy," Riordan said.

Besides the employees’ wages, the city’s only other expense related to the golf outing was $82.77 spent at FedEx for signs.

Prizes, which included golf jackets and golf clubs, were purchased by the AWWA and not by taxpayers, according to an invoice.

Kitty Hawk did not have a list of who attended the event. Other counties contacted by the Daily News — Butler, Clark, Miami and Warren counties — either didn’t send anyone to the conference at all or didn’t appear to send anyone to golf.

Vehicles emblazoned with city government logos from across the state were in the parking lot for the event, including Harrison in Hamilton County and Youngstown in Mahoning County.

Educational conferences can pose a challenge for government managers. They must be interesting enough that people want to attend, and provide people an opportunity to interact informally.

Catherine Turcer with Common Cause Ohio, a Columbus-based public policy group, said educational conferences can have fun, networking-oriented components. But a full-day golf event subsidized by taxpayers amounts to a day of "goofing off", she said.

“This assumes people can’t network in a setting that focuses on learning,” she said.

Training and travel expenses must provide a value to the public, said Huber Heights City Manager Jim Borland, commenting generally on the issue and not specifically on the golf outing.

“We have to think about what’s best for taxpayers,” Borland said. “It’s a case-by-case basis. But I’m not going to pay for your recreation.”

Borland said his city’s finance department closely scrutinizes any travel or training-related expense that seem questionable.

“You have to look at what the good is the city and the citizens derive from that event,” Borland said.

Staff Writer Josh Sweigart contributed to this story

About the Author