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Columbia City Council spends more than $20,000 to attend leadership conference


The Columbia City Council spent more than $20,000 to attend a leadership conference last month. 

The 10th annual leadership trip, which was organized by the Chamber of Commerce, took place in Madison, Wisconsin. According to the Chamber, 71 Columbia business leaders and elected officials attended this year's trip. 

Records obtained by ABC 17 News show the final bill cost $20,376.78. Ward 1 Councilman Nick Knoth told ABC 17 News those costs came out of the city's budget associated with council expenses. The bill included lodging, meals, airfare and mileage.

Mayor Barbra Buffalo, Ward 3 Councilman Roy Lovelady and Ward 4 Councilman Nick Foster were among the 12 city employees who attended the trip. According to Columbia Chamber of Commerce Vice President of External Affairs Lily White -- who was also a trip organizer -- it was on attendees to cover their trip expenses except for a few scholarship attendees. The cost of the scholarship attendees are funded by donations and support from local businesses. 

“We don't get into how the people pay for it there,” White said. “It really depends on the business... So the chamber chair comes every year that's not even paid for by the Chamber of Commerce. And we've heard over the last few years that some of our chairs personally have split that cost with their own business and so I know that our elected officials typically have professional development, but built into their budget in some way.” 

Buffalo, Lovelady and Foster did not respond when asked for comment. Council members were not the only ones who attended the trip using the city’s budget. 

The nine other employees who attended the trip on the city’s budget include: 

  • Sarah Dresser, cultural affairs manager
  • De’Carlon Seewood, city manager
  • Carol Rhodes, assistant city manager
  • Kristina Wolf,  assistant to the city manager
  • Sydney Olsen, public information officer
  • Rebecca Roesslet, assistant director 
  • Amy Schneider, Convention and Vistors Bureau
  • Jill Schlude, assistant police chief 
  • Jeffery Heidenreich, assistant fire chief 

The Chamber of Commerce picks the location of the trip each year. Its goal is to find cities similar to Columbia, so they can learn more about specific areas they excel. Previous trips have included Athens, Georgia; College Station, Texas; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Fort Collins, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Lexington, Kentucky. 

“If we aren't taking into consideration what other communities have kind of already laid as groundwork, or maybe even already run a test or program on it; then we're really doing a disservice to our community by not taking that research,” White said. "It's so much better to learn if you can see and feel and really speak to the people that have made those programs happen in another community.” 

White said the Chamber of Commerce already has relationships with the Madison community through chamber work, which is one of the reasons it was selected as the location if this year’s conference. 

“Madison was very specific,” White said. “Their political leanings are very similar to ours. We're going to want to have wraparound services. We want to have mental-health services. They want to have all these things. So they [Madison] have already started that program and that work and they're a little bit further ahead of us, so to say you know we selected Madison and then we make sure that topics are something that our community is working on. We need to be hearing about and they're a little further ahead of us.” 

When asked why a trip was needed to have these discussions White added that these trips help strengthen relationships amongst city leaders. 

“It's like creating a conference for our community to come back with 70 individuals that are on the same page about a topic, heard the same things and maybe you don't necessarily come from the same background," White said. "So we have city officials, we have nonprofit leaders on that. And we have the business community. And while we all know that homelessness is something we need to address, we're all coming at it from a very different perspectives. But it gives them time to be in a room to hear the same background information, but to hear it from where they're standing, and then to try to compromise and really the relationships that are built on the trip." 

Nobody from the city is required to attend the event. However, White said that chamber members who have attended have been able to bring back things learned on these retreats and implement them into the community.

"We've brought back a lot of really incredible things that have already started in Colombia that people don't realize these trips brought back so things like early college that Moberly Area Community College and the Columbia Public School system started a few years ago, they learned that on a trip to on leadership visit."

Article Topic Follows: ABC 17 News Investigates

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Mitchell Kaminski

Mitchell Kaminski is from Wheaton, Illinois. He earned a degree in sports communication and journalism from Bradley University. He has done radio play-by-play and co-hosts a Chicago White Sox podcast.


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