Mayor Anthony A. Williams, five members of the D.C. Council and eight city employees plan to spend nearly $80,000 in taxpayer funds to fly next week to Beijing, the first stop on an 11-day cultural and economic mission to China and Thailand.
The trip was arranged at the invitation of Washington's sister cities, Beijing and Bangkok, whose governments will be paying for nearly everything but airfare, city officials said. Williams and several key council members accepted the invitation this summer. The trip will take them out of the country just as a volatile political debate over whether to use public funds to build a baseball stadium is about to begin.
Yesterday, Williams (D) and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) defended that decision, saying the trip would not interfere with the council's deliberations over the stadium financing package, which is scheduled for a public hearing Oct. 28, four days after they return.
"Frankly, I'm glad to get out of town and get away from all the anti-baseball people," Evans, the council's point man on baseball, told reporters at the mayor's weekly news conference. "This trip does not impact on the council's actions vis-a-vis baseball at all."
Williams said he is "very concerned about baseball" and has "put in place a war room" staffed by key administration officials and at least one hired consultant to handle the issue in his absence. He said "surrogates" from his Cabinet and the business community will attend community meetings to explain the stadium proposal and listen to public concerns.
Meanwhile, Williams said, he and the city's delegation to Asia will be capitalizing on an unprecedented opportunity to attract tourists and trade to the nation's capital.
"Some may not understand why we're taking a trip like this. I'll tell you why," Williams said, ticking off a list of potential benefits, from jobs to "government-to-government discussions" about tourism, housing and culture. There is also the matter of "common courtesy," he said: The mayors of Beijing and Bangkok visited Washington in recent months.
The mayor of Washington last traveled to China in 1984, when talks between then-Mayor Marion Barry and Chinese officials led to the construction of a $1 million royal gold archway on H Street, the gateway to Chinatown.
Williams said foreign travel -- particularly when it involves a "major trading and economic partner" -- is considered so beneficial that the governors of Wisconsin and Louisiana recently concluded missions to China. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) and Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) are planning trips there this month.
Chicago and Maryland appear to be paying substantially less to reap those benefits, however. Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor's five-day trip to China and Singapore will cost Maryland taxpayers $46,239. She could not provide a breakdown or say how many people are planning to travel. A spokeswoman for Daley said the bill for 25 city officials and civic leaders will be paid with private funds.
District officials have yet to release a budget for their trip, which begins Oct. 14 and ends Oct. 24. District Secretary Sherryl Hobbs Newman, whose office is in charge of planning, said the only cost to taxpayers will be business-class airfare from the District to Beijing, Shanghai and Bangkok and back again. The tickets cost $5,646 per person.
In addition to Williams and Evans, the D.C. government is buying tickets for council members Harold Brazil (D-At Large), David A. Catania (I-At Large), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), as well as Newman, her public affairs officer, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, the director of the mayor's Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, the mayor's photographer, council secretary Phyllis Jones and two District cable employees.
The mayor's wife, Diane Simmons Williams, also will make the trip. Her airfare is being paid by Washington First Corp., a nonprofit corporation formed by the mayor with leftover inaugural funds to pay city-related travel expenses.
About a dozen other people are paying their own way to China, including several Asian American business leaders, Georgetown businesswoman Marsha Ralls and Ambrose's husband, Michael.
Like Chicago, Newman said, the District is soliciting private donations to pay for parts of the mission, including receptions and dinners not funded by the Chinese and Thai governments, translators and telecommunications equipment. So far, she said, the city has collected $15,000 from four business leaders.