Fairfax County officials announced a new policy yesterday that sets strict limits on how much county employees can spend on business travel.
Employees who travel out of town on county business will be limited to a daily allowance for meals and hotel room costs. Managers will be required to sign off on all trips. Hotel stays for travel within the Washington metropolitan area will be banned. And managers will have to show that supervision of their departments does not suffer when they are on the road.
"It's now just not going to be a matter of, 'Here are my receipts, reimburse me,' " said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who requested a review of the travel policy in April after The Washington Post obtained records documenting a county department's spending. "We're trying to create a climate in which you justify the travel. . . . It's not just the money but the confidence of the public that when one of our employees is traveling at taxpayer expense, the public can have confidence that a rigorous evaluation was done."
Previously, travel guidelines did not specify a maximum allowable hotel allowance. Instead, they trusted employees to use "prudent" judgment and "seek to minimize cost" when booking trips.
But that judgment sometimes was less than prudent, officials said. The new policy, effective Friday, follows an article in The Washington Post in June that documented turmoil in the county's Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection. The Post and a county audit found that the agency's consumer affairs division was poorly run for several years, with some top managers falsifying records, rewarding favored employees and intimidating others who complained about mismanagement.
The newspaper, through documents obtained under Virginia's open records law, also examined travel spending by several top managers, who were away from their offices for long stretches, often at conferences run by outside associations. Ronald B. Mallard, the agency's director for 24 years until his abrupt retirement last spring, took 26 out-of-town trips from 1999 to 2003, frequently staying at expensive locations.
One of Mallard's deputies, Carolyn Quetsch, registered herself and four colleagues for a conference in the District, a tab that reached $2,645, then spent $545 to stay downtown at the Renaissance Hotel for four nights instead of driving 24 miles to her home in Chantilly. Quetsch was transferred out of the agency and is no longer a supervisor.
David Molchany, Mallard's boss and the county's chief technology officer, also has taken dozens of out-of-town trips in recent years, records show. County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said Molchany's role is "somewhat unique." Information technology, he said, is "our leading direct or indirect employer." Molchany has sharply curtailed his travel in recent months.
The new policy parallels the federal government's limits on meal and lodging compensation for employees traveling on official business. Under federal rules that will also take effect Friday, the standard hotel reimbursement granted to Fairfax employees will be $60 per night. The meals allowance will be $41 a day. An additional $5 a day will be available for incidental expenses. Travel to cities with a high cost of living, including New York and Los Angeles, will be reimbursed at higher rates.
Griffin said he was not sure whether the county's overall spending on travel, now less than 1 percent of each agency's budget, will decrease under the new policy. He said travel, especially by supervisors, "gets challenging" when those managers serve as officers in local government organizations. "It's a balancing act" between those responsibilities and the demands of the job in Fairfax, he said.