D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has spent all or part of 190 days away from Washington over the past two years, travel records show -- more than one of every four days -- and his 2005 itinerary promises to become even busier as he assumes the presidency of the National League of Cities.
The mayor's election to that post, scheduled to take place next week in Indianapolis, comes as council members and community activists are grumbling about how much time Williams (D) spends out of town. The mayor was gone for 12 days in May, as the city searched in vain for a school superintendent, and the council defeated his plan to take over the troubled school system. In October, as support was eroding for his plan to bring major league baseball to the District, the mayor jetted off for 10 days to Thailand and China.
Bertrand Delanoe, mayor of Paris, right, listens to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams during a visit by Williams to the French capital in September.
(Remy De La Mauvinier -- AP)
And today, with a critical vote on a stadium financing bill less than a week away, Williams will make his annual trip to St. Louis to spend Thanksgiving with his wife's family. He plans to be gone through Saturday. But if there are any snags in negotiations with council leaders, he said yesterday, "We'll certainly be available by phone or by fax."
"It's really gotten ridiculous," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who cites Williams's frequent out-of-town travel as one of the primary reasons he is thinking about running against the mayor in 2006. "He's completely disengaged from the workings of government. . . . It's gotten worse, and with the appointment to the League of Cities, it's likely to get to the point where the mayor doesn't have a hand in the day-to-day operations of government at all."
A quick survey of four other big-city mayors found that those leaders do not travel nearly as often as Williams does. While the mayors of Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Dallas attend meetings of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other municipal organizations, aides said they are rarely away from their cities more than 10 days a year.
Even when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1996, he traveled only about once every two months, said his spokeswoman, Jacqueline Heard.
"The mayor is kind of a homebody," Heard said. "He doesn't like to stray too far from Chicago for very long."
Williams, by contrast, clearly relishes the opportunity to visit distant cities. Aides say he lights up when discussing his latest journey to Paris or Rome. Williams argues that his travels, both nationally and abroad, are central to his efforts to bolster the city's reputation, which had been badly damaged in the near-bankruptcy of the District government and, later, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Williams said serving as president of the National League of Cities, a bipartisan organization that represents the interests of 18,000 cities and towns before Congress and the federal government, also will give him ample opportunity to lobby for D.C. statehood and voting representation on Capitol Hill.
In most cities, according to league executive director Don Borut, the mayor's ascendancy to a national post with high visibility is "a celebratory event." Here, he said, "the media tries to find fault with it."
Borut joined Williams yesterday at his weekly news conference to discuss the upcoming election for the league presidency. Williams disputed the notion that District government suffers in his absence.
"Given that the city continues to excel," he said, "I think it's a good investment of time."
Another issue is whether the mayor's heavy travel schedule is a good investment of tax dollars. Since Williams was sworn in to his second term as mayor in January 2003, his travels have cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
In October 2003, for instance, he spent $6,677 for an overnighttrip to a Juneteenth banquet in Lubbock, Tex., including airfare for himself, an assistant and two police officers serving as his security detail. And in February, he spent nearly $3,500 for a two-day jaunt to Pittsburgh to study a juvenile justice academy, shelling out $754.70 apiece for plane tickets for himself and his two-man security detail.
The mayor's spokeswoman, Sharon Gang, acknowledged that the mayor often pays top dollar for plane tickets because he often books flights and changes reservations "at the last minute."
Although the National League of Cities and other organizations reimburse the city for the mayor's airfare and hotel expenses on many trips, those organizations generally do not pay for Williams's staff and security detail.
Because the mayor's office has released only partial records, it is impossible to calculate the total amount Williams has spent on travel over the past two years. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking travel records for 2003 and 2004, the mayor's office turned over a disorganized heap of expense reports, credit card bills and printouts of online flight reservations. But it failed to produce any information about more than two dozen trips, including visits to Rome, Barcelona, Paris and this October's trade mission to Asia.
Gang said the mayor's office is trying to piece together the information. But she said that task is difficult because the records are kept by an array of different government agencies, including the mayor's office, the city secretary's office and the Metropolitan Police Department.
"These are not trips where everybody's using the same manner of reimbursement," Gang said. "Maybe we need a more consistent system."