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Seeking to boost Providence’s economy, Mayor Elorza, staff traveled the world in 2015

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Elorza Ethics Commission 2-4-2015 DM crop_124926

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – From one-day conferences to week-long international trade missions, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza or members of his staff traveled out of Rhode Island at least 31 times in 2015.

The mayor himself left the country three times — traveling to Guatemala, China and London — last year, according to a breakdown obtained by WPRI.com through a public-records request. He also spent a day in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he toured that city’s waterfront redevelopment and endorsed incumbent Mayor Bill Finch, who would go on to lose his Democratic primary a week later.

Those trips all took place between Aug. 18 and Oct. 20. Along with dozens of others that occurred throughout 2015, they were designed to boost the international profile of Rhode Island’s capital city and build relationships across the country, according to Elorza.

But as Providence continues to experience financial challenges, the first-term Democrat is facing pushback from some members of the City Council who say the city should be cutting non-essential spending or be more transparent when using taxpayer dollars.

“The world really is flat nowadays,” Elorza told WPRI.com. “It’s an interconnected world. I want to be out there letting people know what a great a city this is.” Building ‘sustained relationships’

All told, about 24 city employees — including Elorza, chief operating officer Brett Smiley and economic development director Mark Huang — reported expenses totaling just over $54,000 for 31 different official business trips in 2015, according to records reviewed by WPRI.com.

Of those expenses, about $10,500 was reimbursed to city employees through Providence’s general fund. The rest was funded through the city’s planning department using federal dollars or through the Providence Tourism Fund, a nonprofit controlled by the city. At least $7,000 of the expenses were funded by outside organizations, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the private foundation founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Elorza said he sees two primary purposes for his out-of-state travels: domestically, he’s trying to forge friendships with mayors across the country and develop relationships with cabinet-level secretaries in Washington, D.C. Internationally, he said, the city is focusing on building “sustained relationships” around the world that could benefit Providence down the line.

During a January 2015 trip to Washington for a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, Elorza said he met with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to discuss the importance of apprenticeships. During the meeting, he learned that federal funds were going to be made available for apprenticeships in IT-related fields and now Providence is working with the state to secure that money.

Elorza came under fire in August when he and two staffers traveled to Guatemala for “an economic development trip” to meet with the country’s minister of foreign affairs.  He also met with President Otto Perez Molina, who was arrested on corruption charges just weeks later. (Perez Molina resigned on Sept. 2.)

“We met with a number of different folks,” Elorza, Providence’s first Guatemalan-American mayor, said. “It was very productive.” He said he hopes the former president “faces justice.”

In October, Elorza, Smiley and Huang traveled to Zhuhai, China with officials from Bryant University. Bryant opened a business school in that city in 2015. Elorza said his goal was to promote Providence’s quality of life and make the case to “leaders of industry” in China that they should consider investing in the city. Huang also made separate trips to Taiwan and South Korea in August.

Aside from the mayor and his top aides, other city employees made out-of-state trips for short conferences.

Nicole Pollock, the city’s chief innovation officer, attended conferences in Denver, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. She also joined Elorza in London for the CityLab conference, an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine in partnership with The Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Bonnie Nickerson, the city’s director of planning, traveled to Dallas and Charleston, South Carolina, for separate conferences. Brian Hull, the director of community development, attended U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) events in Boston, Nashville, Tennessee, and Arlington, Texas.Councilman wants travel ban

While the expenses are minimal, two City Council members have raised concerns about out-of-state travel in recent months.

Days before Elorza traveled to London in October, Councilman Sam Zurier introduced an ordinance that would require the mayor to file a report informing the city clerk of any international trips he is taking at least seven days in advance. The ordinance also called for the mayor to report all expenses within seven days after the trip.

Zurier called the proposal a “common sense measure” that “would be helpful to us in the city,” but Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson cautioned his colleagues to not “box in the mayor or anyone else.” The plan was sent to the Ordinance Committee, and it has not come up for a hearing.

On Thursday, Councilman David Salvatore is introducing a resolution that would prohibit all out-of-state travel until the city eliminates its $13.4-million cumulative deficit. (A deficit-reduction plan currently being considered by the City Council wouldn’t completely close that shortfall until 2021.)

Salvatore said he thinks any travel should be paid for using the mayor’s campaign account, which had $194,000 on hand as of Dec. 31. With Providence residents facing the possibility of a tax increase, Salvatore said, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to “shoulder out-of-state travel.”

“I would like to know if we are generating new economic development, new jobs for Rhode Islanders or Providence residents,” Salvatore said. “And to date, I have not seen evidence that we are generating bang for the buck.”

But Elorza maintains that travel is an “important function of the mayor’s office and of the city,” whether it’s lobbying officials in Washington or recruiting new businesses. As for future travel plans, the mayor indicated he plans to take on a larger role with the U.S. Conference of Mayors in the coming year. He’s traveling to Miami for a meeting Thursday.

“If we’re not out there marketing Providence, we’re not going to be on the map for these folks,” he said.Editor’s note: The original version of this report incorrectly stated Mayor Elorza does not have any trips in the near future. He is traveling to Miami on Feb. 18.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowanSend tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter@wbuteau

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