Vancouver Council Member Sarah Fox questions cost for city’s trip to Japan

Two members of the Vancouver City Council did not attend a city-sponsored trip to Joyo, Japan, and Sarah Fox has publicly questioned how much the trip cost Vancouver.
Sarah Fox, Vancouver council member, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle and Bart Hansen, Vancouver council member

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said city paid for her, city manager, and several council members to visit sister city in Japan

Paul Valencia

It has been 10 days since Sarah Fox, a member of the Vancouver City Council, asked a series of questions to the city regarding the cost of a recent trip to Japan.

She is still waiting on answers.

Earlier in March, the city of Vancouver paid for either some, most, or all travel expenses for several council members and the city manager to visit Vancouver’s sister city, Joyo, Japan.

How many? How much? Fox used her time during “communications from the council” at the March 20 City Council meeting to ask these and other questions.

As of 11 a.m. on March 30, she has not received any answers but was told she would get a report by the end of the week. She told Clark County Today that the trip “felt extravagant.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told Clark County Today that she was surprised by Fox’s questioning, noting that Fox was invited and, the mayor said, declined to go because she did not have enough time off from her work.

“First of all, it’s not a vacation,” the mayor said. “We said, ‘There is going to be a ton of work that we are going to be doing.’ We had lots of discussions, and we had two or three emails every week preparing for all of the work.”

Fox acknowledged that when was first approached, she thought a trip to Japan would be at her own cost. Whether she could go or not, she said it was irresponsible for the city to pay for all members of council to attend.

Fox and Council Member Bart Hansen did not go on the Japan trip. This was Fox’s first opportunity to go to Japan as a council member. Hansen, though, recalled being asked years ago but only at his personal expense.

The mayor recalled that being the case, too. 

“Seven years ago, I paid for myself. I was the mayor pro tem,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “I paid for my own expenses. They paid for the mayor and the city manager.”

She noted that in recent years, a change from the state has allowed for more funds for trips for Washington cities and their sister cities.

The mayor said the city paid for the March trip to Japan for her, City Manager Eric Holmes, as well as council members Erik Paulsen, Diana Perez, and Kim Harless. Mayor Pro Tem Ty Stober might be reimbursed for some of his trip, but the mayor said Stober used personal funds for part or all of his trip. Stober said during the March 20 council meeting that he had first traveled to Taiwan and then met the city’s team in Japan. 

“Extravagant is a great word,” Fox told Clark County Today. “It felt extravagant. It felt very irresponsible.”

Fox brought a list of questions to the March 20 council meeting:

  1. Total cost of the Japan trip for all staff and council. 
  2. How many staff joined the trip?
  3. What other individuals and organizations traveled with the council? Were any of their expenses paid for by the city? If so, include those costs in the total trip costs.

Fox also is asking for the total cost of travel, conferences, memberships, and training for all of 2021 for all council members, as well as the same from January of 2022 to date.

The city is working on getting those answers, but the mayor did note Wednesday that others who went on the trip, including representatives from the Port of Vancouver and Clark College, did not travel on the city’s dime.

Fox said she was first approached about going to Japan in November of 2022. She asked how much time she had to decide, wondering if just a few people were going to be allowed to travel. The answer was troubling to her: Everyone could go, she was told.

“What do you mean? Why would all of us go? Why would we all need to go to Japan?” Fox said. “That was the end of me exploring this idea. That didn’t feel right.”

Hansen was taken aback by the idea of the city paying for the entire trip, as well.

“When the opportunity was presented to me to have a city-sponsored trip, I thought it was in bad form. I think it sends the wrong message to the citizens of Vancouver,” Hansen said.

Stober and Harless used their “communications from council” time to praise the trip. Harless called it an honor to learn more of the history of Joyo. Stober appreciated Japan’s priority in creating public spaces.

The mayor also gave rave reviews of the trip at the March 20 council meeting. She mentioned the purpose of the trip again on Wednesday.

SEH America, located in Vancouver, is part of a corporation based in Japan. The mayor visited headquarters to discuss a potential expansion plan. 

“How can we help?” the mayor asked.

Kyocera has been on Fourth Plain Blvd. for 38 years, the major said. “Thank you for staying. How can we help you?” she asked.

United Grain’s parent company is Mitsui. The mayor and the Port of Vancouver wanted an audience with Mitsui to help maintain the strong relationship.

Same with Subaru.

“All of those companies are staying here and growing because we are a fantastic place to be,” McEnerny-Ogle said.

Beyond meeting with trade partners, the visiting of cities gives leaders a chance to share ideas, McEnerny-Ogle said.

“We in the U.S. and the world have the same problems,” the mayor said. “How do other communities solve those problems?”

Fox and Hansen acknowledge those relationships are important. But that does not necessarily justify the cost of paying for every council member, the mayor, and the city manager to go on an international trip.

“My purpose wasn’t to throw mud,” Fox said of her line of questioning.

Instead, she wants the travel policy to change. She wants open conversations about cost and the agenda for future trips. 

She also said she would propose a sub-quorum to attend such a trip in the future. The mayor and mayor pro tem, for example. Instead, for this particular trip, with so many council members out of the area, one council meeting had to be canceled. 

That did not sit well with Fox and Hansen.

“I’ve been doing this job for about 13 years,” Hansen said. “There are things you focus on as a council member that are good for the community and things you avoid that can be bad. This would fall into the latter.”

“I’m a person who takes it pretty seriously when I’m spending the public’s money,” Fox said.

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