Guess who’s coming to dinner
ASPEN ” The Aspen city government’s policy on food purchases is predicated on public perception, yet dozens of employees in recent years have dined at taxpayer expense in high-end restaurants all over town.
The city’s usage policy for the 270 government employees who have what are known as “purchasing cards” ” out of a total of 314 workers ” is that they shouldn’t charge meals if the expense is not justifiable to the public.
“The decision to pay for meals with a city of Aspen purchasing card, or any other method of using city funds for legitimate purposes, should be done carefully considering appropriateness and public perception that may result,” the policy states.
The policy also asks employees to test themselves with three questions before making a purchase: whether the meal is necessary for city business; whether the employee can do the business during regular work hours and whether the meal is defensible to the public.
“Meetings should be scheduled outside of the lunch hour whenever possible and should not be used as an opportunity to have ‘lunch on the city,” according to the policy. “The bottom line is not to purposefully plan lunch or dinner meetings in order to have a free meal.”
Over the past two years, city employees have spent thousands of dollars at expensive restaurants like the Palm Restaurant in Denver, Montagna in The Little Nell hotel, D19, Lulu Wilson, Campo de Fiori, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Pinons and several others, according to city finance reports that track commercial card transactions over the past two years.
The city finance department on Tuesday released the names of employees who spent public money at those establishments, which was detailed in the Tuesday edition of The Aspen Times, and what the purpose of the meals were.
The list, a random sampling of meal expenses made in 2007 and 2008, gives a glimpse into employee-spending habits and restaurant preferences.
In 2007, Erik Peltonen charged three meals at Montagna totaling $221.50. A community development employee, Peltonen stated that the transactions were working meals with co-workers.
Human resources employee Amy Leach took the staff to Montagna on Dec. 21, 2007, for a $194 Christmas lunch.
The largest bills at Montagna came from staff in the information and technology department, who chose to take their safety bonus money and spend it at the restaurant inside the five-star hotel. In December 2007 that meal totaled $886. Last December’s lunch amounted to $938. Because the meals were charged on the purchasing cards, the employees did not receive cash bonuses.
On July 31, 2008, Kim Peterson, director of the city’s Canary Initiative, spent $111 on a farewell lunch for Calla Ostrander, Peterson’s predecessor. Four people attended the meal.
Wheeler Opera House Director Gram Slaton spent upwards of $1,000 on dinners with people who are associated with a master plan to redevelop the facility.
In October 2007, that included dinner at L’Hostaria for $124. In 2008, Slaton spent $162 at Rustique Bistro on Jan. 21, and another $300 at Lulu Wilson on Oct. 21.
“We did a lot of dinners in the last quarter of ’08 with architects and board members,” he said, adding architects and consultants traveled to Aspen and stayed in hotels at their own expense. “We take them out to dinner, it’s standard business practice.
“We try to be smart in how we spend money over here. You won’t find me buying dinner at Montagna.”
Slaton also dined at Lulu Wilson on Oct. 1, 2008, with representatives from Mountain Film Festival in Telluride to discuss bringing a festival to Aspen in the summer. He spent $341.
He said his largest tab was at D19, where at least seven people were present. Slaton doesn’t remember the total cost but said, “I remember I got the bill and thought ‘I don’t want to do this again.'”
Dinner at the Palm was paid from the purchasing card of former assistant city finance director Lisa Dawson on Feb. 7, 2007. The tab was $220.75. The business purpose states “conference dinner.”
Three going-away parties accounted for $1,593 in expenses in 2007 and 2008. That included a gathering at Asie in 2007 for former community development employee Joyce Allgaier totaling $600, as well as former City Councilwoman Rachel Richards for $493. In 2008, outgoing police officer Dan Glidden’s retirement party cost $500 at Campo de Fiori.
The Aspen Police Department spent $3,234 in 2007 for a Christmas party at Bumps at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Seven meals totaling $4,000 were paid for by the public to reward government employees through the city’s various bonus programs.
The most expensive such outing, on Jan. 17, 2008, at Russets in Carbondale for $1,325, was charged by Rebecca Hodgson, assistant to the city manager. The gathering was for the streets department’s “Over the Top” bonus.
Hodgson was treated to a $150 dinner by Assistant City Manager Randy Ready at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse on Oct. 30, 2008, for an “Over the Top” award for filling in for a co-worker who was in Ireland.
Community development employee Johannah Richards spent $200 at Takah Sushi on Sept. 19, 2007, for two “Over the Top” awards.
Community Development Director Chris Bendon received an “Over the Top” award and went to dinner with Johannah Richards, who charged $200 at Lulu Wilson on Oct. 28, 2008.
Police officer John Rushing spent $300 at Matsuhisa on April 30, 2007. The reason given by the city finance department was “unknown, probably a service award.”
Jennifer Outwater from the transportation department charged $505 at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse on Sept. 29, 2008, for public survey raffle prizes.
City employees spent more than $3,000 on lunch for residents who volunteered their time to sit on task forces, boards and commissions, or contractors and consultants, and for large public events.
Nancy Lesley spent $470 on March 10, 2008, at Campo de Fiori to thank volunteers who worked at a special event.
Historic Preservation Officer Amy Guthrie spent $552 at the Hickory House on April 14, 2008, to feed the historic preservation task force.
Sara Adams, who works in community development, spent $490 at Jour De Fete on March 17, 2008, for a historic preservation task force meeting.
Several thousand dollars were spent on community events, including $1,077 spent at Zele for bus rider appreciation day in 2007 and again in 2008, when $1,228 was spent at the eatery.
On Aug. 18, 2008, $2,067 was spent at Champs in the Aspen Recreation Center for the triathlon.
Tom Rubel from the parks department charged $1,004 at Red Mountain Grille at the golf course for a staff retreat on Oct. 2, 2008.
Hodgson charged $305 on March 14, 2007, at Asie for the City Council’s dinner.
In 2007, city employees spent $114,519 on dining and food, and in 2008 that figure reached $139,880.
What was budgeted for meals was $24,272 in 2007 and $24,340 for 2008, according to city officials. For 2009, $24,340 is budgeted, although many meals will be charged in other line items across various departments like in years past, according to City Finance Director Don Taylor.
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