In July, Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez and Vice Mayor Pete Cabrera traveled to Guatemala City to sign Doral's fifth "sister city" agreement — an arrangement that fosters trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges, the officials say.
But critics say the deals are mostly a ploy for politicians to book all-expenses-paid trips around the world, sponsored by thousands in tax-funded per diems.
"It doesn't make sense why city officials from a small city like Doral are going on these international trips to places with little economic impact — and using city money to boot," says longtime Doral resident Richard Glukstad.
The idea of sister cities came from President Eisenhower's administration in 1956 as a way to promote diplomacy after WWII. Many cities in South Florida have participated over the years, including Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and Hialeah, but Doral didn't jump onboard until 2011.
That year, Doral signed its first sister city agreement with the Xizhi District of New Taipei City, Taiwan. Since then, the city's list of foreign partnerships already includes Barranquilla and Armenia in Colombia and Oranjestad in Aruba.
Guatemala City is Doral's latest partner, an arrangement "suggested and approved" by the city's Economic Development Advisory Board, says Bermudez. The goal is to build Guatemalan business and real estate investments in Florida, create exchange programs between university students, and foster training programs between police departments. The two cities also agreed to host a cultural event called "Ritmo Doral."
To seal the deal, Bermudez and Cabrera traveled to the Central American capital, accompanied by legislative aide Gustavo Garagorry and Captain Carlos Arango of the Doral Police Department. On July 26, they attended an official signing ceremony with Guatemala City Mayor Álvaro Arzú at Palacio de la Loba as well as a networking event called "Encuentro con el Migrante" the following day.
Since travel was abroad, the city council members and employees were reimbursed for hotel and flight expenses, while daily allowances, or "per diems," were awarded for food and beverage. City council members were allotted $100 each day, while city employees got $75.
Though the group was scheduled to arrive in Guatemala City on July 25 and depart on July 28, only Mayor Bermudez and Captain Arango filed for four per diem allotments. Vice Mayor Cabrera and aide Garagorry extended their trip and filed for 14 and eight per diems, respectively. In an email to the city clerk's office, Cabrera's total estimated reimbursement for the group, per diems included, was $3,723.
According to his email, Cabrera had been invited to attend "several other important events" from July 22 through August 4. However, an itinerary shows these activities included a side trip to Antigua, a guided tour through the small southern city, and cocktails with businessmen and Miss Universe Guatemala candidates. Nothing was listed for dates July 29 through August 4, when he also filed for per diem reimbursements.
But Cabrera defends the extra travel and says it will pay off for his city. He'd met with Guatemalan businesses interested in opening new distribution centers in Doral, and writes in an email that the city has "actually accomplished short term results, which is usually not the case."
Even so, many residents in Doral have protested the sister city trips, calling them excuses for elected officials to party overseas. Glukstad, who formerly served on Doral's Environmental Advisory Board, says the money would be better spent elsewhere.
"I understand if they want to go to Tallahassee, but why Guatemala? It's clearly just free travel for themselves," he says.
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Nevertheless, Doral city representatives claim the sister cities initiative is worth the cost. Previous partnerships have spawned art exhibitions, festivals, multipurpose marketing spaces, technology partnerships, and educational exchanges. In April, Richard Hansen, an archaeologist from the University of Utah, presented a lecture at Doral City Hall regarding a recently discovered site in Guatemala.
Though there are no set plans for future sister city trips, Maggie Santos, a city spokesperson, says it's possible.
"We do anticipate to continue fortifying our existing sister city relationships through trips like these and other efforts," Santos says.