Houston mayor defends expenses for delivery of truck

Rindi White

HOUSTON -- The heat for Houston Mayor Roger Purcell continued Thursday night as city residents complained that he was trying to hide information about how much he spent while on a trip in December and January to pick up a used rescue truck from Virginia.

The rescue vehicle is a 1991 Mack, refurbished in 2002, with more than 40,000 miles on it. It's designed to be a mobile command center for emergency scenes and is outfitted with telescoping light poles, a searchlight, an air exchange system that can recharge air tanks at a fire scene, and other gear.

The City Council approved allowing Purcell and his wife, Bianca, to fly to Nellysford, Va., to pick the vehicle up. The council agreed to allow Purcell to spend $7,835 to cover airfare, fuel, meals and overnight stays for the couple to drive the vehicle home.

But the trip cost more than expected and Purcell drew fire when he tried to make his expense report private. City residents and critics said the information should be open to the public.

"I will take that as, willfully, you are hiding this information," Josh Hanford said at a City Council meeting Thursday night. Hanford ran last year for City Council but did not win the race.

Purcell said he was trying to avoid a public spectacle by holding the discussion privately. Purcell has accused Hanford of grandstanding in advance of another run for office. Hanford has said he will only run if Purcell runs for re-election.

Hanford also said Houston should have solicited bids to ship the vehicle to Alaska instead of agreeing to send city officials to pick it up.

Houston City Clerk Steven Cunningham said he called around to find out the cost of shipping the vehicle from Seattle to Skagway, then paying for volunteers to fly to Virginia and drive to Washington, then have volunteers drive the vehicle to Houston from Skagway.

"I gave up on the idea when the cost exceeded $10,000," Cunningham said in an e-mail.

He said he also asked shipping companies for quotes to tow or haul the vehicle up the Alaska Highway, but again was quoted roughly $10,000, more than the city expected it would cost to send volunteers to drive the vehicle the whole way back.

Purcell said weather delays and unexpected repairs bumped the trip's cost up to $9,893.13. Bad weather across much of the South and Midwest around the holidays prompted Purcell and his wife to take a southwestern route instead of a more direct route to Alaska.

Purcell said the City Council did not oppose the city sending a volunteer to pick up the vehicle. Initially, Houston Fire Chief Tom Hood tried to find a volunteer firefighter to make the trip, Purcell said by e-mail Tuesday. But no one volunteered unless the city could pay them for their time, he said.

"If anyone would have, I would have been more then happy to have let them go in our place," Purcell said.

Purcell is facing a second recall effort after an initial one was thrown out by the city clerk last week.

The City Council late Thursday night was also scheduled to discuss job performance of several employees, including recently reinstated Houston Police Sergeant Charlie Seidl, who the council had voted not to terminate in January. The council did not take that issue up by press time.

Find Rindi White online at adn.com/contact/rwhite or call 352-6709.