The Great Falls City Ethics Committee voted on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 to dismiss all allegations of conflicts of interest and ethics violations I made against city officials for providing city employee time and city resources to Big Sky Country National Heritage Area (BSCNHA) Inc.
Their decision seemed to be based mostly on the city’s premise that the National Heritage Area idea began with the City-County Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and is mentioned in the 2013 City Growth Policy Update, therefore it is “city-sanctioned.”
Apparently, if it is “city-sanctioned,” despite what we taxpayers want, the city can and will spend our money on it.
Never mind that the NHA idea expressed in that 2013 document was just that, an idea not a project and that there was no indication in that document that the city would provide city government resources toward the NHA.
Never mind that the narrow corridor along the Missouri River originally envisioned as an NHA has since expanded to include all of Cascade County and a major portion of Chouteau County. There are people that supported an NHA then that don’t support one now. But the city doesn’t care about that.
While I’m dismayed that the city spent any money, at any time, on this NHA, there is certainly no justification in my mind for the city to have continued to support of the NHA after a separate private nonprofit was created.
Maps were made on city employee time; maps that city planning now claims were also used by the city. I find that hard to believe, since that the NHA map, with its GIS layers, is specific to the NHA.
Meeting rooms were provided for free. The city claims it makes meeting rooms available to other nonprofits for free. But when I called about a meeting room for a nonprofit, I was quoted a fee. When I told the city employee on the phone that BSCNHA Inc was meeting there that evening and they aren’t charged, I was told that was because it is a “city meeting.” I guess those free meeting rooms are only for “city-sanctioned” nonprofits.
In the HPAC meeting minutes, I discovered that the city was accepting and holding funds for BSCNHA Inc because they didn’t have a bank account set up. What I didn’t know until this hearing was that the city continued to hold the nonprofit’s funds for FOUR YEARS.
It doesn’t take that long for a nonprofit to get a bank account, in fact most new nonprofits get a bank account within a month. It seems rather odd to me. Why should the city serve as a bank for a private nonprofit for that long?
Did the city maintain those funds in a separate account or were they commingled? Is the city still holding funds for BSNHA Inc? Did the city keep track of the total gross receipts per year of BSCNHA Inc? If not, how do they know how much money belongs to BSCNHA Inc and what year it was deposited?
Of course, I wasn’t allowed to ask questions of the staff at the hearing.
Unfortunately, we may never know. Despite the city’s involvement with BSCNHA Inc, the city denied my Freedom of Information request for the organization’s associated records including their financials and meeting minutes. The city stated that I must request them from the organization. The request was then made to BSCNHA Inc, but the organization denied the request, claiming it is a private nonprofit and not subject to disclosure of those records as is a government agency.
So the city treated BSCNHA Inc like a separate and private entity when they denied my request for information, but then on the other hand, treated them more or less like a part of the city budget when justifying spending taxpayer dollars on their behalf. In my opinion, the city can’t have it both ways.
City Planning Officer Craig Raymond likened my complaint to harassment of him.
When city officials like Raymond and City Commissioner Houck cry harassment and personal attacks if a citizen voices serious concerns about city operations, that is chilling to free speech, government transparency and the right to petition government for redress.
At the hearing, Raymond reiterated his claim that even if the NHA wasn’t city-sanctioned (which I don’t accept that it is), he’d still provide city support to BSCNHA Inc because it’s a “worthwhile” project.
Worthwhile is a subjective opinion and to me, his attitude smacks of smug superiority. I take issue with a city official who would deem a project “worthwhile” of spending my tax dollars for five or more years without a vote of the city commission and without public comment.
I take issue with a city official who states that those who disagree with his “worthwhile” project are “spreading lies and misinformation.”
When the City of Great Falls bends over backwards in working with only select nonprofits and not others, it tends to validate citizens’ perceptions of city favoritism and cronyism.
Why are some projects and private nonprofits “city-sanctioned” while others are not? Seems much of the city decision-making is far too subjective—subject to the personal desires, whims, or relationships of city officials.
Did the city learn nothing from their HUD CDBG grant debacle, in which HUD found serious conflicts of interest with the city in the grant dispersal to certain nonprofit agencies?