AUSTIN -- The City of Austin is a little more than five months away from the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) Formula 1 race -- the largest, worldwide event to come to Austin.
"We're going to be on an international stage here, and so we have to familiarize ourselves and do everything we can to try to determine what we need to do to prepare this community," said Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald.
McDonald said about four weeks ago COTA offered to send Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Manager Marc Ott to a similar event -- the F1 race in London. They accepted. The City also wanted to send four staff members, including Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr. COTA agreed to pay for those additional four rooms, and the City had to buy the plane tickets. Those four tickets are going to cost $5,556.. The money will come from the travel section of the City budget.
City officials say it's a small investment to ensure the race, which will bring an estimated $4 billion economic impact to Austin over the next 10 years, will be successful.
"When the comment was made that there would be no money spent on F1, that was a point in time where we were talking about the support that the City would have to give in order to be spent by the state. We never anticipated not doing the things that we would normally do as a city for any special event," said Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards.
Edwards said that includes visiting events to prepare. The problem is, City Council Member Laura Morrison says some council members, including herself, didn't know about the trip. She found out from a constituent.
Morrison voted against hosting F1 and says the council was ensured that no taxpayer dollars would be spent on the event.
"Any dollar that we spend on F1 is a dollar we don't spend on something else," said Morrison.
"Promising not to spend city tax dollars and then turning around and spending city tax dollars looks bad," said former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire.
Aleshire said he understands that circumstances about events change, but thinks the City needed more transparency. He's also concerned about a potential conflict of interest, claiming the mayor and city manager are accepting a gift, the trip, from a company looking for tax breaks and incentives.
The City says there is no conflict.
"We checked with our law department, and they did not find a conflict of interest. All of the decisions that the city council has to make about COTA and F1 have been made," said Edwards.
COTA also offered the Travis County Commissioners a similar opportunity to go to the London race. The commissioners were split on the vote, saying they didn't have enough time to decide. Still, Judge Sam Biscoe pointed out that the court supported the idea of going to a race to have a better idea of what they would be dealing with in November. He even called it a "missed opportunity" for the county.
Austin city officials leave for London on Thursday July 5, and will return on Sunday July 9. City officials say this is strictly a working trip, with meetings and tour planned throughout their stay.