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MAHONING COUNTY Sherlock: I've learned from travel mistakes



Published: Sat, May 4, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The commissioner said she won't take her family along on other work-related trips.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Politics and poor communication were the fuel that fired a controversy over use of government credit cards for travel expenses, Mahoning County Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said.

But the commissioner said she has learned her lesson and won't get burned again.

The problem arose because she was not clear with her colleagues about the reason behind a trip she and her family took to Philadelphia, she said.

"There's a mea culpa here," Sherlock said. "I should have communicated better with the other two commissioners about what I was doing. I accept full blame for that."

Credit card use

The heart of the matter is Sherlock's use of county credit cards for trips she took to Philadelphia, Marietta and Cincinnati.

She was especially criticized for the Philadelphia trip because her children and boyfriend went along. Some critics said it was a family vacation at taxpayer expense.

"That's ludicrous," Sherlock said. "This was not a luxury situation."

She maintains that the trip was a fact-finding mission for development of a long-range "smart growth" and land-use plan for the county.

She took her family along because she believed it was an "accepted practice" to allow families along on work-related trips, as long as their expenses were paid with her own money.

Paid money back

Sherlock said that's what she did, but she has since paid back all the money she spent on travel, including for expenses she was allowed to declare under Ohio law.

Because of the questions that arose regarding Sherlock's travel, the Ohio Auditor's Office examined her travel expenses. The final audit report is done but has not been released. Auditor Jim Petro said recently that it will not contain any findings for recovery against Sherlock.

He said the report explores the county's credit card policies and sets guidelines to protect against abuse.

Commissioners already have revoked county credit cards for travel use. Employees who travel now must charge the cost to their personal credit cards and seek reimbursement from the county. Petro said that's the right way to go.

Sherlock said her political foes seized the issue as an opportunity to tee off on her, making the matter out to be worse than it actually was.

"I feel like I survived another attempt at political assassination," she said.

She said she's glad the six-month audit is over and she's grateful to have apparently been cleared of any wrongdoing. She has not seen final report.

Somewhat unclear

She said the main problem with her Philadelphia trip was that she did not keep a detailed accounting of her time and whereabouts, as would have been the case had she attended a training seminar.

Also, she did not make it clear that she would be researching on her own instead of attending a municipal growth conference, which is what Commissioner David Ludt thought she was doing. He agreed there should have been better communication.

"When you're asking for money [to travel], everybody should understand where you're going and what you're doing," he said.

Sherlock has two large binder notebooks filled with photographs and notes she compiled from the trip. The notes are in a journal form, chronologically dated, and discuss various sites she visited and programs she said she observed.

Independent work

She said commissioners often work independently on projects without immediately telling the others, with which Ludt agreed. He said he worked on securing video arraignment for county courts without input from other commissioners until the project was well on its way.

"I basically applied private-sector standards to a public-sector project, and I should not have done that," she said.

Sherlock said she intends to eventually return to the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania for more research, including interviews with officials there. She will do that at her own expense, though, she said.

bjackson@vindy.com




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