When most people think of planes, trains and automobiles, they think of the 1980’s John Hughes’ comedy by that name.
However, the phrase has renewed meaning in Guilford County right now because those three modes of transportation are how the county commissioners are getting to the nation’s capital in a mass trip to the 2017 National Association of Counties (NACo) Legislative Conference.
Usually the nine-member Board of Commissioners sends a representative or two to an event like this. However, this year, two-thirds of the Board of Commissioners is making the trip.
The group of six going consists of three Republicans – Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, Commissioners Alan Branson and Alan Perdue – and three Democrats – Commissioners Carlvena Foster, Ray Trapp and Kay Cashion. No county staff is making the trip.
The cost to taxpayers of all six commissioners attending the conference this year is expected to be over $20,000.
The Legislative Conference, which is held in Washington, DC, each year, brings together about 2,000 elected and appointed county officials. This year it runs from Saturday, Feb. 25 through Wednesday, March 1.
At the conference, the commissioners will meet with other county officials from around the country and with federal legislators and administrators to discuss, among other things, the impact of federal policy on county governments. The county officials from around the country will have the opportunity to learn best practices for county governments in seminars, lectures and panel discussions, as well as attend social events where they’ll get a chance to express the concerns of county government to federal officials.
The fact that Washington has a new Republican administration may be one reason so many Guilford County commissioners are going this year.
In some cases, local elected officials from around the country attend conferences like this simply to enjoy a very nice trip at taxpayer expense. Sometimes attendees take trips like this without attending many – or in some cases any – of the educational or business events. However, all the Guilford County commissioners the Rhino Times spoke with said the legislative conference experience should be very valuable to the county in terms of the impact on federal legislation and the lessons on efficient government that they will learn through the seminars and panel discussions.
Conference materials put out by NACo state, “With a new administration, and newly elected members of Congress, the 2017 Legislative Conference is a can’t-miss opportunity to elevate the county voice at the national level. Attendees will participate in second-to-none educational sessions, interact with federal officials and also descend on Capitol Hill, delivering the message that federal policies matter to counties and counties matter to America!”
County commissioners attend various conferences at the state and federal level, but usually one or two commissioners go and report back to the board what they have learned.
While the commissioners state frequently that these types of conferences are beneficial to county residents, one is hard pressed to identity any tangible rewards that have come from county attendance at these types of conferences.
About a decade ago, the commissioners learned about a NACo prescription drug discount card program that provided actual savings to county citizens who signed up for and used the card. While that was a nice perk, for years that prescription drug discount card became kind of running joke in relation to benefits coming from commissioner conferences precisely because that was the one thing they always pointed to as an actual citizen benefit.
Also, these trips can be expensive. In 2005, two Guilford County commissioners attended a NACo conference in Hawaii. While Washington it not Honolulu, it is still costly.
Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller wrote in an email, “There is no set travel limit or amount per commissioner but I do estimate for this trip that it will be between $3,000 and $3,600 per person. This cost includes registration fees, travel, hotel and meals. We try to keep the costs low so that there [are] enough funds for each commissioner if they wish to attend at least one conference per year, but not all do.”
The commissioners are all staying in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, which is the conference hotel.
Phillips said this week that he expects the experience to be beneficial for Guilford County government.
“I went to the 2013 legislative conference and it was actually very good,” Phillips said. “Hopefully, this will be valuable.”
Phillips said he has no idea why so many commissioners are going this year, but he said one reason this might be a particularly beneficial conference is that there’s a new president and a largely new federal government. Phillips said that on Tuesday morning, Feb. 28, there’s a breakfast on Capitol Hill that gives the commissioners a good opportunity to interact with federal legislators.
While the breakfast will no doubt be a nice one, another less expensive way to communicate with federal legislators would be to call them on the phone.
He also said some Guilford County commissioners serve on various national NACo boards and those commissioners will attend their committee meetings while in DC.
Commissioner Alan Branson, for instance, sits on the NACo Transportation Steering Committee, which attempts to influence policy on everything from “drones to autonomous vehicles.” Branson said some of the transportation issues are of particular interest to him since he works in the trucking industry. It’s unclear how those committee discussions will help Guilford County.
He also said that some of the educational programs on the agenda are highly applicable to Guilford County government.
“There’s different programs on health and human services, and education is another big piece of the puzzle,” Branson said, adding that each year Guilford County spends a great deal on those services.
Branson also said the local board will get a chance to spend some time with the federal legislators from this area.
“It’s a busy time, but a good time,” Branson said.
Branson said he’s flying to DC and is “going to taxi or Uber” around once he gets to the nation’s capital.
Commissioner Ray Trapp, who’s taking a train because of his fear flying, said a trip like this not only helps give local legislators a better understanding of federal legislators’ policy intentions – it also helps the commissioners get to know one another. Trapp said he went to the Legislative Conference a few years ago and that’s where he really got to know Phillips. The two commissioners are on polar ends of the political spectrum but they got along in DC, Trapp said.
“It takes away some of that animosity when you hang out with each other outside of a meeting,” he said. “You get to know each other and it makes it easier to work together.”
A cheaper alternative would be for commissioners to go the Coliseum Country Cafe for lunch and work out their issues there.
Like Phillips, Trapp said the congressional breakfast is one of the highlights of the trip. He said that breakfast is a great time for local leaders to discuss issues of concern with the federal legislators who represent this area and other areas, as well a good time to hear from national leaders. He said that Vice President Joe Biden once spoke at the legislative conference. (One can, of course, debate whether it’s a good idea to take advice from Biden.)
Trapp also said the conference helps commissioners prepare for the upcoming year.
“You see what legislation is coming down the pipe,” Trapp said.
Some of the events at the 2017 Legislative Conference are networking opportunities for those interested in promoting international exports or bringing foreign investments to their counties. There are also seminars in technological innovations for governments – including cyber-security and social media – and those devoted to strategies for dealing with the current epidemic of opioid addiction. Some of the seminars are on using the arts to benefit a community, the role of “mega-regions” in economic development and what legislation can be expected from the Trump administration.
One panel discussion has a North Carolina focus. It’s titled “Panel on North Carolina Counties’ Response to and Early Recovery from Hurricane Matthew.” In that discussion, representatives from across North Carolina will discuss “their response to and early recovery from Hurricane Matthew, including what mitigation strategies have best benefitted the counties.”
Commissioner Justin Conrad said he is not going to the Legislative Conference. He said he travels a lot for his work as it is – he runs a seafood distribution company – and he added that he’s also not sure how beneficial these things really are.
He joked, “I’m the most conservative commissioner” – no doubt referring to the $3,600 or so that taxpayers will save by his staying home.
Conrad said he can contact NC 13th Congressional District Congressman Ted Budd whenever he needs to.
“I don’t begrudge anyone going, but I have a good relationship with Ted Budd and I can get out my phone and call him,” Conrad said. “I can do that any time.”