Tempe’s City Council has changed its tradition of eating meals on Mill Avenue at taxpayers’ expense.
After a Tribune story showed Tempe spent more money per meeting than any other city except Scottsdale, the city’s top elected leaders are eating the same food — but having it delivered to City Hall instead of venturing out in public.
The change comes after the cost of meals made some elected officials uncomfortable that the city spent $206 on average to feed dinner to nine or so elected officials and staff members before meetings.
One councilwoman has decided to reimburse the city for food after the Tribune story last month, and several elected officials said they’re willing to discuss whether taxpayers should continue to pay for the meals.
“I told my assistant just to tell me how much it is and I’ll write a check,” Councilwoman Onnie Shekerjian said. “I’ll pay for my own from here on out.”
Tempe spent more than $4,300 in a one-year period for food at 21 council meetings. Only Scottsdale spent more, $9,530, or $207 a meeting. But that money feeds about 25 people a meeting — and it covered 46 meetings. Scottsdale fed those people for half the cost per person that Tempe spent.
Other East Valley cities spend $1,200 to $2,000 a year on meals. Those cities typically feed more people than Tempe, but they often just provide snacks and drinks or buy meals on rare occasions.
Tempe’s meals weren’t very productive, Shekerjian said, because open-meeting laws only let officials talk about issues if they’ve been listed on agendas posted in advance. In most cases, officials couldn’t even discuss what they were about to vote on later that evening.
“We can’t really talk about anything of any real substance,” Shekerjian said.
Councilwomen Barb Carter and Shana Ellis said they’d be open to discussing whether the city should keep paying for their meals, though they didn’t object to the tradition.
Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman has long disapproved of the city paying for meals and said he’s been waiting for another elected official to ask for public discussion.
“Nobody’s asked me to put it on the agenda,” Hallman said.
He has reimbursed the city for meals since taking office three years ago. On occasion, he has eaten on his own before joining the group.
Some council members defended the city-funded meals.
“A happy council makes better decisions and I think you work better when have a full stomach,” Carter said.
She suggested the issue has been overblown, as only one Tempe resident e-mailed the council to object.
Carter and others noted they can spend up to 10 hours at City Hall on meeting days. They say they need food during that time, and it’s only reasonable the city pay since they’re conducting business.
Vice Mayor Hut Hutson said nobody’s lollygagging.
“We come down here on a Thursday, and we’ll get here anywhere from 12 or 1 o’clock and we’ll stay until 10 or 11 at night,” Hutson said. “I really don’t see anything wrong with buying a meal.”
Carter said the meals on Mill helped support local businesses, especially earlier this decade when they struggled through a recession and a citywide smoking ban that reduced patronage at some establishments.
The council could return to Mill. Several members said they’ve eaten at City Hall recently mostly because of unusually long meeting agendas. By eating in, they’ve been able to hold closed-door sessions on legal matters before the formal meetings begin, which has allowed them to make the most difficult decisions when they have more energy.
Shekerjian said it’s reasonable for the city to pay for meals during all-day sessions, or even when work occurs at times when people would normally eat. But she said she would prefer something more like Queen Creek’s meals, which cost about $45. The council usually eats sandwiches and salads from Subway or a grocery store.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Shekerjian said.