Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bigger than the Bennett report

Robert Bennett, Special Counsel to the City Council who led the investigation of CM Barry and the City Council’s use of earmarks, released the investigative report on February 16.   You would have to be living under a rock to have missed the hoopla including:

As interesting as all of the juicy stories might be, and as important as CM Barry’s transgressions are, what is more important to me is what is embedded in the comment Ward 7 CM Yvette Alexander made at the release of the report:   A lot of nonprofits serving residents east of the river rely on earmarks (go to 1:11:20).

What I believe is embedded in this statement:

  • For some organizations it is too hard to compete for funding; it is easier to get earmarks
  • Earmarks are less of a burden than regular grants or contracts
  • Elected officials make better decisions about meeting needs than grant managers
  • Elected officials can "tell" which organizations are good or worthwhile

Think I am projecting or overreacting?   I don’t think so.   Consider this from the report:

The Fiscal Year 2009 Budget Support Act of 2008 (the "FY 2009 BSA") was passed on June 26, 2008.   For the first time, the FY 2009 BSA included a list of documentation that grantees were required to submit before funding could be released.   However, some of the newly established requirements were perceived to be onerous for start-up organizations, prompting concern that those requirements might preclude the funding of otherwise worthy organizations.   As a result, legislation was introduced on July 17, 2008, to ease the requirements for organizations that could not meet certain requirements.   This amendment allowed an organization to submit a certified financial statement in lieu of a recent financial audit, and provided for a "fiscal agent" to be appointed for organizations that could not meet certain of the documentation requirements.   (Emphasis added; pages 46-47)

What has disturbed me from the beginning of the "earmark" debate has been its schizophrenic nature.   A significant number of organizations only testify when they seek money for their own organization.   I understand and appreciate looking out for your best interest.   But what about the best interest of the client population, the residents of the District?   And then there are members of the council who demand detailed answers to questions about what outcomes the mayor’s budget will achieve.   Why is it that the City Council is not interested in details about the outcomes their earmarked organizations will achieve?

And let’s not even get into what CM Alexander’s statement says about competence to manage a business.   It is just not enough to want to do good.   We have to do good, do right by clients, be good stewards of the public's money, of the public trust.   When an organization receives a contract or grant, it has a responsibility to spend the money well.   And as boring as record keeping might be, it is part of running an organization, it is part of documenting what was done with public funds.   If you can’t do it, then this is wrong gig for you.

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