MyTwoCensus.com broke the story that managers from the Denver region (140 of them) went to Vegas for a “debriefing.” Unfortunately, Steve Jost and the Census Bureau Public Information Office never returned my calls/e-mails requesting the PRICE TAG of this event. Now, a month later, a CBS affiliate in Denver has taken up this case, as has a Congressman from Colorado:
A CBS 4 investigation has learned the U.S. Census Bureau sent 140 administrators from Colorado and nine other Rocky Mountain and southwestern states to Las Vegas for several days to discuss “lessons learned” from the 2010 census that could be applied in the next census in 2020. The trip cost an estimated $100,000 in airfare, meals and hotel costs and is coming under withering criticism from a Colorado congressman.
“It’s impossible to argue this without saying these folks took a vacation and they took it at taxpayer expense,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado. “I mean I think it’s the equivalent of theft,” said Coffman, who insisted the Census Bureau could have saved taxpayers money by gathering the same information from administrators by conducting online and written surveys, phone conferencing and a host of other data-gathering methods that would not involve congregating in Las Vegas.
“You need to be respectful of taxpayers. Don’t waste their money on a three-day party in Las Vegas or anywhere else to have discussions you can have via a written survey.”
The CBS4 investigation learned that the Census administrators were flown to Las Vegas Aug. 24 and put up at the luxurious Treasure Island hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip. Some of the managers stayed for two days, others stayed for three. The Census Bureau obtained a government rate of $61 per night per room with every 40th room free, according to census officials.
While census officials say they haven’t tabulated exact costs for the trip, the federal government per diem rate for meals is $71 per day and $53.25 on travel days.
CBS4 has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the federal government to obtain precise costs for the trip. Census officials were not able to provide cost estimates for flying in managers from Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada.
“It helps to have an exchange of information and ideas,” said Steve Jost, Associate Director for Communications for the Census Bureau.
Jost told CBS4 that the post-census meeting took place in Las Vegas because it had the lowest airfares, hotel costs and meeting room charges in the region. Jost said a meeting like the one that took place in Vegas “improves quality and processes and allows us to be efficient.” Jost said the debriefing involved three senior managers from each Census field office in the region and that they discussed “what worked, what didn’t work, how we can improve, training, monitoring big tough questions.”
Asked why the Census Bureau couldn’t have saved taxpayers money by gathering the information by surveys or electronically, Jost said his agency has had video meetings, webinars and has done mail and web-based surveys. But he said, “Sometimes you just need to sit down and hash things out face to face with these people.”
Another Census spokesperson, Raul Cisneros, told CBS4 the gathering only involved 1/4 of one percent of Census employees in the Denver region.
“We wanted to have face-to-face meetings so we could drill down and cover key topics,” Cisneros said. “This is standard management practice … we want to get that local knowledge.”
Coffman said he agrees that “after action,” data gathering is important. But he said it could have been done other ways and “this is an absolute waste of taxpayer dollars.”
In the past, President Obama has been critical of holding meetings in Las Vegas. Obama criticized corporate CEOs for junkets to Las Vegas. He told an audience in Elkhart, Ind., “You can’t get corporate jets, can’t take a trip to Vegas or the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime. There’s got to be accountability and responsibility, something I intend to impose as president of the United States.”
And after taking office, Obama again criticized spending money in Las Vegas.
“When times are tough you tighten your belt. You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college. You prioritize, you make tough choices. Its time your government did the same.”
CBS4 has learned the Las Vegas meeting was actually one of a dozen that involved flying census managers into central locations and putting them up at hotels. The Census Bureau has 12 regional offices in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle. The Census Bureau held similar “lessons learned” debriefing sessions in each region.