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City Council Reverts To Fiscally Irresponsible Behavior #1

After a couple of years of acting like a responsible legislative body providing good stewardship of public funds, the Richmond City Council, sometimes aided or at least enabled by staff, seems to have taken a turn for the worse, returning to the type of practices and spending patterns that caused a fiscal train wreck not so long ago. This is the first of several pieces about fiscal sloppiness the City Council seems to be falling into.

In a 5-4 vote on March 21, 2006, with Butt, Thurmond, Anderson and Viramontes dissenting, the City Council voted to appropriate $200,000 to a group of unspecified individuals to, in turn; distribute unspecified amounts of money to seven organizations to be used for anti-violence programs as recommended by the Black-on-Black Crime Summit held June 4, 2005.

The agenda item placed by Councilmember John Marquez that resulted in the allocation was listed as “Discuss Richmond’s Black-on-Black Crime Summit Recommendations.” There was no request for funding indicated on the agenda or any indication that this was an action item. Attached to the Agenda Request Form in the Council packet was the “Executive Summary” of the Black-on-Black Crime Summit that included under “Recommendations,” the following paragraph:

I need the city support to continue to go out and attract outside private outside capital to bring to the City of Richmond. The estimated cost to launch the above projects is $375,000. I need the city to provide $200,000 and we will raise the remaining $175,000 from the private sector.

According to the Executive Summary, the participating organizations include:

  • Richmond Steelers for Life Program
  • Project Clean Slate
  • B.U.I.L.D (Businesses United in Investing, Lending and Developing)
  • Pre-Apprenticeship Program
  • Bidwell and Manchester Craftmen’s Guild
  • San Quentin Project
  • 100 African American Men Against Crime, Violence & Injustice

It is not clear who “I’ and “we” are from the written information presented to the City Council in the Agenda Packet, but based on the testimony at the meeting, the “I” appears to be the Rev. Andre Shumake, and according to a March 15 West County Times story, the “we” is “a group of Richmond ministers,” presumably the fourteen clergy listed as the Richmond Improvement Association, which describes itself as:

The Richmond Improvement Association (RIA) was formed in 1999 to help improve the quality of life in Richmond, California through community organizing projects designed to build a more peaceful and prosperous community. Under the leadership of Reverend Andre Shumake, the coalition of Richmond churches, partnering nonprofit organizations and concerned citizens…

Now, what’s wrong with this picture? A group of respected ministers led by one of their own who has received numerous awards for community projects takes the initiative to address a chronic problem of Richmond homicides that disproportionately affect the African-American community. This may be a case of doing the right thing the wrong way. Consider:

  1. The item was not agendized as an action item or an appropriation item. Neither the general public nor [some] councilmembers understood that the City Council was going to consider a substantial contribution of public funds to private organizations.
  2. There is no money budgeted for 2005-2006 to pay for the program, and the City Council has not yet begun the 2006-2007 budget process.
  3. The City Council on this same evening had approved a progress report from the city manager on the selection of an anti-violence coordinator whose job it would be, among other things, to establish the City’s priorities and program needs, including a budget for any public expenditures to support anti-violence initiatives.
  4. The proposal was unsolicited. There are many organizations operating in Richmond that provide programs for at-risk youth and adults that may have programs that provide similar or even more effective services. Two of them had already been turned down by the City Council after citing the need to first install an anti-violence coordinator, including some of the councilmembers who voted for this appropriation.
  5. There was no clear description of what the receiving entity would be, who would administer the program, how the funds would be distributed and in what proportions, how many individuals would benefit and in what way, what the expected outcomes would be and how they would be measured and reported. All of these are normally prerequisites for grant applications and are considered part of best practices for grants.
  6. It is not clear when the $175,000 to be raised “from the private sector” is to be contributed or whether or not it is a prerequisite for release of City funds.
  7. Richmond Improvement Association and five of the seven “programs” listed are not charitable non-profit organizations registered with the California Attorney General (see http://www.ag.ca.gov/charities/index.htm). The California Attorney General warns:

Taking time to learn about a charity before you donate can go a long way to making sure that the nonprofit organization and cause match your intentions. However, researching charities can be daunting when you consider that there are more than 700,000 federally recognized nonprofit organizations - nearly 150,000 of them in California - and no official "seal of approval" issued.

To help Californians in making important personal decisions on charitable giving, Attorney General Bill Lockyer offers a variety of resources here. These resources include guides for charitable giving and searchable databases to learn about specific charities and commercial fundraisers in the state.

California law requires charities and commercial fundraisers to register with the Attorney General's Office and to file financial disclosure reports. All charities must file the Annual Registration Renewal Fee Report, and those with gross revenue or assets of $25,000 or more must file annual Form 990 financial reports with the Attorney General's Registry of Charitable Trusts.

Again, my criticisms are not about Rev. Shumake or the clergy who testified passionately last Monday night, nor is it about the programs or the at-risk individuals who could benefit. My criticism is for a City Council that should know better than to act hastily and irresponsibly to spend substantial public funds on an unsolicited proposal without critical information.

What the City Council did is commonly known as “political pandering,” which is what a politician does when he or she pushes bad ideas to please interest groups. The word “pander,” which in this case is used politically, has an interesting derivation. It has two dictionary meanings: (1) to indulge somebody's weaknesses or questionable wishes and tastes (tired of pandering to their children's demands), and (2) to procure sexual favors for somebody (commonly known as pimping). The term dates to at least the 14th Century (Pandare, character in Chaucer's Troilus & Criseyde who procures Criseyde for Troilus).