Serving as mayor of a big city provides some perks; generous pay and benefits, national and international recognition, and apparently, extensive travel.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is nearing his two-year mark in office, and in those first twenty-four months he’s raked in much more flight time than his predecessor did during the same timespan.

Annise Parker went on one international trade mission during her first term and three during her second, four in as many years. With less than two years under his belt, Turner has taken six international mission trips to eight different countries, and sixteen domestic trips outside of the state of Texas.

The city estimates that Turner has spent 65 days traveling since taking office, noteworthy considering that the first half of his term was occupied with major undertakings such as director-level staffing recruitments (particularly for Police and Fire), Super Bowl preparation, the regular legislative session, a special session, pension reform, and bridging a budget gap.

His international trips included three days in Cuba; ten days in South Africa; three days in Mexico; four days in Bahrain; seven days in Israel; and eight days traveling in Europe from the United Kingdom to Germany ending his European tour in Turkey. His administration was eyeing a trip to China before year’s end, but that remains to be determined. Domestically, he’s been to San Francisco for pre-Super Bowl activities, D.C. for Houston Congressional Delegation meetings, Boston to speak at a Harvard Law School Black Alumni Panel, New York City for interviews with Bloomberg, and Miami for a conference of mayors, to name a few.

Records show that the international trips alone cost taxpayers over $260,000. City officials noted that “the costs for gifts are not included in the costs reflected,” so the final amount does not include any diplomatic gifts from the city of Houston to the delegation’s hosts.

International missions are funded through Hotel Occupancy Tax funds from Houston First, not general revenue funds. HOT funds are intended for the promotion of the tourism and convention industry. By using the funds to lure visitors, cities generate more HOT funds when they rent hotel rooms. Houston has one of the highest HOT rates in the state of Texas.

Ties to the Super Bowl

The mayor’s domestic trips were funded through numerous sources including the city, his officeholder account, and, in some cases, the hosting entity.

The most expensive domestic trip, over $10,000, was to San Francisco for “Super Bowl 50 Activities,” even though the game wasn’t lured to Houston by Turner; its selection of Houston as the host city was finalized before he took office. The trip is listed as having been paid for by the Houston Super Bowl Committee, which was also partially tax-funded.

Houston First spent $1.5 million in tax dollars to be a Super Bowl “official sponsor.” Aside from prime advertising slots, they also received game tickets, a typical perk for event sponsors. But, as is the case with many “economic development” programs, the beneficiaries are a narrow group of business interests and others with political access, not local taxpayers. A Ted Oberg, ABC 13 investigation following the Super Bowl found that Turner gave out about $37,000 worth of these tax-funded tickets to personal friends, political allies, business clients, and relatives.

Two pairs of tickets went to Turner’s longtime friend State Rep. Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto) and former campaign treasurer and political donor Thomas Jones. According to travel records, both Jones and Giddings also accompanied Turner on the mission trip to South Africa.

Also on that trip to South Africa was the mayor’s current Chief of Staff, Marvalette Hunter. Hunter, however, wasn’t appointed to her current role until six months after travelling to South Africa , instead she attended as a delegate representing her company, 3D Visions Planning Consultants. Hunter is still listed as Principal on 3D Visions’ website despite serving in her role in the administration.

Delegates and Business with the City

Hundreds of other delegates from various public and private entities joined the mayor on trips including: representatives from Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, a recognizable political firm contracted by the city to collect debt but has also repeatedly come under fire for predatory practices; TRISTAR Risk Management, the city’s third-party worker’s compensation group; and the Vice President of Texas Central, the railroad company that has never actually built rail but is planning a high-speed version between Houston and Dallas.

It’s important to note that accompanying delegates and any other non-mayoral staff are supposed to cover their own costs. Regardless, it seems inappropriate for delegates who have financial interests with the city, like those who hold current contracts, to attend. The mayor’s office said, “the purpose of the Mayor’s participation is securing high level access and commanding center stage in media.” So, it also raises the question if businesses, allies, and delegates are financially benefiting from the high-level access granted to them simply because they are in the company of the mayor.

Mission trips are intended to maximize Houston’s exposure, obtain meetings with international leaders, and lure potential businesses to Houston. Through the Bahrain trip, Houston was named the host city for the 2020 World Petroleum Congress. But that’s a temporary investment into the city, most of which will be directed back into hotel occupancy taxes or to large businesses downtown.

Regular taxpayers, not just the visiting ones, would benefit from their mayor focusing domestically, visiting rival cities and states and selling Houston as an opportune place to visit, live, and work.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.