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County execs enjoy $1,600 meal on taxpayers’ dime

Officials say dinner yields greater rewards for residents
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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A group of county supervisors and executives enjoyed a $1,668 meal – including a $300 tip – courtesy of Placer County taxpayers. In light of the budget crisis, some have questioned how government officials have been spending taxpayers’ money. The Journal recently obtained a copy of a dinner receipt for 10 Feb. 28, 2007 at The Capital Grille in Washington, D.C. The evening was an “appreciation” for former District 4 Congressman John Doolittle and the guest list included Doolittle’s then-deputy chief of staff, current Placer County Supervisors Jim Holmes, Rocky Rockholm and Robert Weygandt as well as current county executives Tom Miller and Richard Colwell. Items listed on the receipt range from $45 for a cold shellfish platter to $280 for the order of seven $40 porterhouse steaks. There were also orders for a $34 10-ounce filet mignon, two $8 orders of truffle fries, a $9 order of a wedge of bleu cheese and $13 for pan-fried calamari. Colwell claimed there was a $300 mandatory service fee for reserving a $653.55 room for the meal. However, the $300 charge was listed as the tip on two receipts from the restaurant. A copy of the receipt is posted on AuburnJournal.com. The 2007 dinner is considered “outrageous” and “ego-driven” by some taxpayers while officials say the benefits far outweighed the cost of the dinner. Ken Campbell, former Placer County Republican Party chairman, was angered by the expense. “To have these guys live like kings on our pocketbooks and our hard work is offensive,” Campbell said. Colwell, who used his private credit card to initially pay for the dinner and then was reimbursed by the county, said the meal was a “key part” of the county’s effort to lobby its elected representatives for federal funds to help local projects. In an e-mail response to questions from the Journal, Colwell said the county has “achieved impressive results and has managed to obtain more than $109 million in federal funding since 1998 to assist in funding important community projects as the Interstate 80 Capacity Improvements, the Lincoln bypass, the Foresthill Road Improvement Project, the Regional Waste Water Treatment Plant, the Children’s Health Center/Emergency Treatment Shelter and the Regional Public Safety System.” He said the County Executive’s Office “carefully followed the county’s administrative rules,” when it came to the dinner with Doolittle. Colwell said a private room was rented to “more easily conduct business.” “Staff verified the legality of renting the room with County Counsel and the Auditor before the trip and agreed the County should not pay for the dinners of Congressman Doolittle, his staff member or Mrs. Rockholm,” Colwell said. “CEO Tom Miller and I personally paid for those dinners and other costs which exceeded County guidelines.” Colwell said a copy of his $200 canceled check is available. According to three different county documents, Dorothy Rockholm’s $22 meal was the only item that was deducted in reimbursement requests. Colwell and Miller both signed a Placer County accounting expenditure entry dated April 4, 2007 that lists the total $1,668 dinner costs and only deducts $22 for a roasted chicken. They requested a total reimbursement of $1,646. Rockholm’s wife, Dorothy, ordered the $22 roasted chicken that was deducted. The Journal also has a copy of an April 5, 2007 order to pay $1,648 to Rich Colwell to “reimburse for Doolittle dinner.” When asked why he didn’t initially deduct the dinners of Doolittle and his staff member along with deducting Dorothy Rockholm’s meal, Colwell said he would have to examine the receipt. He asserted that he paid a check over $200 to Placer County in regards to costs of the dinner. “I can guarantee to you every expenditure there was accounted for in the appropriate manner,” Colwell said. Supervisor Jim Holmes said he thought the dinner was a “nice gesture” for Doolittle. He said it was treated as a going away or departing meal. Also, Holmes said, it was a thank you for Doolittle finding federal money for the county. “We just appreciate all the support he gave us,” Holmes said. Holmes said of the several legislative advocacy trips he’s taken to the nation’s capital, this dinner was “a little out of the ordinary.” He said usually he is “very prudent” with his expenses and is billed by the county for anything that goes over the allowed limit. “It’s a challenging time for us because we’re going to meeting after meeting after meeting,” Holmes said. “We want to make wise use of our time.” Current Board of Supervisors Chairman Rocky Rockholm declined to comment for the story. “I don’t feel like I’m treated fairly in your paper so I’m going to decline to comment,” Rockholm said. Supervisor Robert Weygandt said in the context of the trip, the cost of the dinner was a “tiny addition.” “It’s very important to develop those relationships and those kinds of settings are the way by which you do it,” Weygandt said. He added that he did discuss issues surrounding the regional wastewater treatment plant with Doolittle. He said he felt the congressman was able to take the time during the dinner to hear about the local politics surrounding the issue. However, officials’ explanations are not enough for some taxpayers. Diane Hart, a Meadow Vista resident who is a Farmer’s Insurance agent in Auburn, said it’s “just sad” to hear of elected and public officials spending that amount on dinner. “It’s extravagant, it’s ego-driven and it’s out of touch with the people,” Hart said. She said hearing of waste of public money impacts her clients, many of whom are living in their vehicles just to afford their insurance bills. “I hope that the people who are spending so much money can get a realization of what some of the rest of us are going through,” Hart said. Campbell added that it’s frustrating for taxpayers to work hard and then see their money used to pay for an expensive dinner. “I believe (county officials) are poor stewards of taxpayers’ money,” Campbell said. “They disrespect our hard work by using our money that way.” The Journal's Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment.