A three-day trip that the Helena-West Helena mayor and 15 city employees made to Hot Springs to attend a conference has upset some city council members who say the trip was never approved.


A three-day trip that the Helena-West Helena mayor and 15 city employees made to Hot Springs to attend a conference has upset some city council members who say the trip was never approved.
The ordinance cited by council members requires council approval for reimbursement of overnight trip expenses. Mayor James Valley said the ordinance isn't really a factor because he never signed it, and another ordinance encourages city officials to attend meetings of the Arkansas Municipal League, which hosted the Hot Springs conference earlier this month.
It's the latest scuffle in Helena-West Helena, where prosecutors are trying to remove the city's treasurer for not maintaining proper records and aldermen are accusing the mayor of misusing city funds.
Registration costs for the city's delegations at the Hot Springs event were about $2,400, the mayor said. Those who attended got a $100 per diem, which totaled $4,800 for the 16 officials for the three days. The city also paid for hotel rooms for the attendees.
Valley said the council passed a travel budget and he has made sure that the city stayed within that limit.
"I don't even know why this is an issue," Valley said.
Alderman Bruce Hudson said he is concerned that the mayor is not following laws set by the city council.
"I see a mayor whose town is over $1.8 million in the negative taking an illegal trip with all the city officials and department heads to Hot Springs for a gala," Hudson said. "The mayor and the department heads were engaged in this partying against the rules and against the law of this city regarding overnight travel without the explicit consent of the council."
Valley called Hudson's comments a joke. He said the city has a surplus of about $200,000 and is not $1.8 million in debt.
"The Arkansas Municipal League conference is a very conservative event," Valley said. "I've gone to things far more extravagant. We eat tacos when we go over there. It's not a gala."
On Thursday, Prosecutor Fletcher Long of Forrest City filed a motion in Phillips County Circuit Court seeking reimbursement from various city officials for close to $18,500 in unauthorized expenditures for 19 former and current officials from 2007 to 2009.
Long also filed court documents seeking the removal of Helena-West Helena Treasurer Michael Boone for not maintaining receipts, cash-receipt journals, cash-disbursement journals and for not providing the council with bank reconciliations.
Boone has said he maintains everything required by law.
Alderman Joe St. Columbia said the mayor and other city officials tend to take business trips to places where they can have a good time rather than keeping it cheap.
St. Columbia said Valley and his brother, City Attorney Andre Valley, took a trip to Las Vegas in September 2008 for the International Municipal Lawyers Association conference. City documents show that the mayor and his brother were each paid $2,146.37 for the trip, including $1,826.37 each for mileage.
St. Columbia said they actually took an airline flight that cost much less, and pocketed the rest of the money.
"This is just a taste of what crap we have to put up with," St. Columbia said.
The mayor said Friday that he and his brother reimbursed the city for the entire amount of the Las Vegas trip.
A state audit released in September showed that Valley accepted $19,907 in improper disbursements and city employees accepted a total of $57,879 in improper disbursements between January 2007 through June 2009, said June Barron, deputy legislative auditor for counties and municipalities.
The money owed by city officials was decreased to about $18,500 and cut to $7,066 for Valley, as reflected in the prosecutor's filing, after the mayor and others were able to document some of the disbursements, Valley said.
However, Valley said every purchase or travel expense outlined in the audit was authorized and for legitimate city business.