City Commission

CDBG Records

In an earlier piece, we pointed out that City Commissioner, Tracy Houck, complained about an alleged conflict of interest by a member of the Community Development Council, which allocates CDBG funds among various local government entities, charities, and other groups.

Houck had gotten wind of the fact that a particular individual had down voted the Paris Gibson Square’s application and complained about that fact to City staff. (Houck made this complaint as a City Commissioner which was pretty clearly improper, and resulted in Houck’s receiving a letter from City Attorney, Sara Sexe, directing Houck to recuse herself from further proceedings on the application.) Of course, Houck ‘won,’ and the applications were reconsidered and Paris Gibson Square received some money.

I am addressing one minor bit of the story. After she complained, Houck was given scoring sheets and other information about the Community Development Council’s process. Some suggested this was “inside information,” but City Staff told me it was public record. So I requested it.

Here is the February 23, 2017, scoring sheet, the April 3, 2017, scoring sheet, and related audio files of the meetings (one, two, and three).

May 23, 2017

About Author

Gregg Smith Gregg Smith is a Great Falls attorney and businessperson. He writes a monthly column for the Great Falls Tribune.


15 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “CDBG Records”

  1. Rick Tryon says:

    Hey Gregg,
    Sure, the information you presented is subject to a public records request, which can take up to 10 business days. Are you suggesting that the public had the same one-click access WHEN Houck did? Or that the other applicants had the same one-click access WHEN Houck did?
    The CDBG scoring and recommendations were delivered to Houck in a link via email on March 19th or 20th. That email was only sent to city commissioners and intra-city staff. The next day is when Houck began her attempt to change the funding recommendations.

    • Rick Tryon says:

      I just double checked the dates of email I mentioned above and have to correct it:

      Houck first raised the issue in a March 13 email chain including Tom Micuda, Craig Raymond, Bronson and CCd to Doyon. In the immediately prior email Houck is responding to Micuda who says the following in his email ccd to ALL commissioners:

      “Hello, Bill. If you open the link below, you will find the following information about the CDBG applications reviewed by the Community Development Council for the 2017-2018 fiscal year: 1) All applications (funded and not funded), 2) Recommended funding allocations from the CDC, 3) the scoring system they used, and 4) how the CDC scored the projects. I believe this will give you everything you want about the CDC reviewed projects. If you (or anyone else) would like paper copies of the applications, please let us know.”

      Then on March 14 Houck begins the process of demanding a CDBG do-over by claiming Heidi Gibson “reached out” and obtained the scoring and funding recommendations leading to Houcks allegations of a conflict on the CDC.

    • Gregg Smith says:

      I received a response to my inquiry in, I think, two business days. The City Clerk does an awesome job.

      But now that you mention it, I initially requested the records informally through a staff member, but I was directed to make a formal request through the City’s FOIA website. It doesn’t appear that Commissioner Houck had to make a formal request, but that seems pretty small ball. Heck, there might be a policy exempting City employees from having to use the website. Or, maybe, the fact that she was able to get the records informally when a citizen could not reflects the unfair position she put City staff in with the request?

  2. RJ Haffner says:

    Gregg,

    From a quick review of the committee member score sheets, it looks like three members did not participate in the second review. On the second run I did not see data for Ben Buckridge, Craig Nowak or David Sutinen. This is in addition to Wolfe’s scores being withheld. So the results appear to be effected by more than just the exclusion of Wolfe.

    It’s also notable that the procedure for conflicts was already in place per the minutes of the CDD dated 2/8/17 where rules were laid down for the allocation process. Wolfe’s single score for PGS should have been replaced with the average score of the other CDC scores per established rules.

    I also see in the CDC minutes that 6 members are required for a quorum yet only 5 scores were listed in the second reconsideration and yes the sidelined Wolfe could have been used as the quorum 6th to open the meeting but with a forced removal from the process that caused her to excuse herself from the meeting, that seems a bit clever. The quorum slight of hand goes back to Burrow’s “backroom” description of the appearance on how this played out.

    I doubt staff purposefully did anything wrong but the results are tainted just the same as a result of Houck’s goofiness. As has been said before, excluding PGS’s application for this year seems like the cleanest fix, the PGS board may want to talk about this issue until next time. The city attorney could also take the time to have a few ethics classes for the commission with Houck buying the beers for all after each session and a tequila shot for Sexe.

    REF RECONSIDERATION 4/3/17 MINUTES: https://greatfallsmt.net/sites/default/files/fileattachments/community_development_council/meeting/142511/cdc_meeting_minutes_4-3-17_draft.pdf

    REF RULES ESTABLISHED 2/8/17 MINUTES: https://greatfallsmt.net/sites/default/files/fileattachments/community_development_council/meeting/packets/128081/cdc_meeting_minutes_2-8-17_draft.pdf

    Sorry my formatting sucks

    • Gregg Smith says:

      Why are Wolfe’s scores withheld?

      • RJ Haffner says:

        Per the CDC up front rules, Wolfe’s scores on all applicants except for the conflict were to be used, but all scoring was tossed. I don’t know why she was removed entirely from the process, it wasn’t necessary and gave a result less representative of the CDC at large. You’re the lawyer, once Wolfe left the meeting where they voted to reconsidered the applications and a quorum was no longer present, are the voting decisions they made still valid? To me the cleanup looks worse then the problem.

    • Anon says:

      I see your point RJHaffner but am assuming that since the rules you note state that anyone with a conflict of interest shall not score, and the person with the supposed conflict did score ( although I completely agree with you on the fact that they could have thrown the score out as per the rules ) but Additionally that person with the supposed conflict of interest was supposed to recuse themselves from any discussion on that application, and apparently that did not happen – for those two reasons I assume the city attorney felt they needed to start over on the scoring process.

      • RJ Haffner says:

        Anon- I agree that Wolfe participating in the discussion is troublesome but I think that Houck involving herself in the process and lobbing members is much more corrosive to the process and public perceptions.

        The city attorney at the time of the reconsideration should have recognized that a quorum wasn’t available and stopped the proceedings. Instead she left open the perception that rules be dammed, the goal was to keep re-voting until Houck’s employer gets the funding.

        Interestingly, Houck’s complaint letter didn’t even ask for a revote, she only requested for Wolfe’s score to be removed and the totals recalculated. Because of this it is hard to understand why we started over only to accept another tainted result, only this time with eyes wide open.

        • Gregg Smith says:

          If I had the time and inclination (I have neither), I would take the score sheets and recalculate the first vote based on the CDC’s stated procedure: “To avoid any conflict of interest–perceived or real—CDC members who work for or sit on the board of directors of an agency applying for a grant or potentially have some other perceived conflict of interest shall not score that agency’s application on the matrix (an average of the other CDC scores will be inserted for the that score ) and will recuse themselves from any discussion about the application’s merit.”

          If an agency other than Paris Gibson Square would have received funds under that procedure, then I think that there should never have been a re-vote and there is a reason to complain to the City Commission. If the Square would have won anyway, I think the allocations will go through.

          • RJ Haffner says:

            Gregg- There is no formula for allocating money just a scoring system to help the CDC rank applicants and provide some framework for discussions. My issue is that there is a process created before the CDC met to encourage fairness. Why were all the rules suspended when Houck is the complaintant? The process worked out with Wolfe the way it did with Wolfe, Houck and the PGS Development director all ok with Wolfe as evidenced by them remaining silent throughout the process. Houck and others had plenty of public opportunity to out Wolfe as a problem but they did not. Only when the outcome wasn’t as they wished did any complaints come forward as a city commissioner’s sour grapes.

            In reading the minutes (2/23/17) of this grant allocating process I see where the funds for PGS actually came from Young Parents Education Center who was stripped of $10K and the funds moved to the pool PGS bathroom project resided in. That is why Trib found that after the reconsideration few other applicants were affected. The Trib didn’t actually look deep enough to see where the money came from. I think the teen mother daycare at Paris Gibson HS should not have been defunded after their funding was already established by the CDC. Just like the PGS was funded after they received nothing. So most of PGS money came from funds that the commission had dedicated elsewhere not from the applicants competing against PGS. What happened and what we are told are different.

            The lack of a predictable process gives me pause, especially when those in charge use the system to their advantage. I also expect staff to hold the commissioners to a higher standard, truth to power and all.

  3. RJ Haffner says:

    Not to beat a dead horse. but…

    The reason given for not funding PGS in the CDC’s 2/23/17 minutes says:

    “Paris Gibson Square- The CDC agreed not to fund the project due to limited funding and discrepancies in the bathroom accessibility plans for the project. ”

    In the tribune article of 5/19 says Houck started investigating what went wrong with the PGS proposal after the 3/7 commission meeting where results were given to her. Houck is quoted as saying she talked to a CDC member who said the PGS presentation “was probably one of the best”. That doesn’t square with the CDC minutes noted above that says PGS’s application had “discrepancies”. Was the PGS application one of the best as Houck claims she was told or did it have fatal discrepancies as the official CDC state?

    A small deal maybe but we have a track record with Houck of self serving facts created from smoke when her hand is caught in the cookie jar.

    https://greatfallsmt.net/sites/default/files/fileattachments/community_development_council/meeting/128111/cdc_meeting_minutes_of_2-23-17.pdf

  4. Rick Tryon says:

    Gregg, I don’t think I would refer to a city commissioner using timely inside information to change a taxpayer funded CDBG allocation from zero to $28,000 going to the entity that signs her paycheck as “pretty small ball”. LOL.

    • Gregg Smith says:

      Yeah, Rick.

      Because that’s what I said.

      And, remind me again, what’s the “inside information?” Because I’m pretty sure it’s public record.

      • Rick Tryon says:

        Houck had one-click access to detailed CDBG scoring information at a time when no other applicant or member of the public had the same kind of access. She had that kind of access because of her position as a city commissioner. That is a fact. That is also the definition of ‘inside information’.

        You are correct when you point out that it appears that Houck didn’t have to go through the FOIA process to get scores like any other applicant would have to do.

        Does it matter WHEN Houck had access to the CDBG scoring cards in relation to when other applicants had that access? Maybe.

        It depends on whether Houck thought she might need to get a jump on the process in her attempt to get a do-over so PGS could get money.

        The clock started checking as soon as the CDC original recommendations were completed.

        Lots of questions in this entire matter that need to be answered. But I don’t think there’s any question that Houck leveraged her position as a city commissioner to get a do-over so her employer would get $28,000 of taxpayer money. And that she had the advantage of access to information in a manner and at a time that no other applicant had.

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