Why become sister cities? What Hilton Head leaders said — and gifted — to Verona
A trip to Italy in June to sign a “friendship pact” — five days in Verona that the Town of Hilton Head Island didn’t initially believe was necessary — cost Island taxpayers $14,644, according to travel receipts obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request.
When the sister-city agreement between Hilton Head Island and Verona, Italy, came before the council in June 2017, the information packet specifically said, “no funding at all is necessary. Relationships can be forged at a distance.”
“While a trip to memorialize the agreement is typical, it is in no way necessary,” the agenda package said.
Still, when the mayor and town manager began making plans to go, the issue never went before the town council either for approval or for reimbursement of travel expenses, according to town records.
Ward 3 representative David Ames, who was on the intergovernmental and public safety committee two years ago when the sister-city relationship was approved, said he enthusiastically supported it. But the trip to Italy came without any formal discussion at Town Council, he said.
“There wasn’t any council vote or announcement,” Ames said. “I would have expected an announcement of the benefits of such a trip.”
The $14,644 expense is a mere speck in the town’s $79.6 million budget, but it happened without notice to the town council. It came as the new mayor has said financial transparency is a priority. And it has rankled taxpayers, who see a trip to Italy as an extravagant expense, a symptom of being out of touch with the issues residents most worry about.
In a letter to the editor of the Island Packet July 11, residents Albert and MaryAn Emanuelli asked, “Have Hilton Head Island Mayor John McCann and town manager Steve Riley sold their reputations for a taxpayer funded ‘work-related’ vacation to Verona, Italy?”
“As taxpayers, we await ... what information this European trip has provided to remedy our pressing traffic congestion and workforce housing problems.”
The trip, which Town Manager Steve Riley said was government business, lasted five days for Mayor John McCann and 11 days for Riley and his wife, Mary Jo. The town reimbursed all three for their travels to Verona; the Rileys were reimbursed for only the first five days of the trip, according to invoices.
Mary Jo Riley does not work for the town in any capacity, but her travel can be paid for by the town when her “presence at work-related functions is expected or in the town’s interest,” according to Riley’s contract.
Here’s how the costs for the trip broke down:
McCann and the Rileys were reimbursed by the town for their flights from Savannah to Malpensa Airport in Milan — about two hours away from the island’s sister city, Verona.
The Rileys’ reimbursement for two tickets from Savannah to Italy was $3,882 — just $533 more than McCann’s airfare reimbursement for an international “Delta One” ticket.
Asked in June why he chose a more expensive flight, McCann said “I’m a retired executive who’s flown all over the world. If you’re going to spend half a day getting someplace, you want to be in the best shape you can when you get there.”
Delta One status includes a fully reclining bed, power outlets, a skincare kit and noise-canceling headphones, according to the Delta website.
Travel program and hotels: $7,095
More than 20 members of the Italian-American Club of Hilton Head joined town officials on the trip, and all paid their own way, according to John DeCecco, club president.
The group organized the trip through Richard Collins, Verona-based CEO of InLingua language school.
According to invoices from InLingua, the mayor’s four-day sister-city program cost $2,019.
The Rileys’ trip cost $5,076 and included an excursion to Venice.
Also included in the trip were lunch at Lake Garda, dinner at the hotel and a signing ceremony between the local leaders in Venice.
The group exchanged gifts with Verona leaders, saw the opening night of the La Traviata opera and went on a wine-tasting excursion, according to the travel plan by InLingua.
Other expenses: $318
Riley and McCann each submitted an additional expense report for the trip.
McCann submitted his $228 reimbursement request for parking at the airport, a lunch and dinner in Verona.
Riley’s was submitted for baggage fees associated with his international flight, where he and his wife flew in economy, according to invoices.