If you skipped last week’s City Commission meeting (like the Great Falls Tribune did), then you missed a real doozy.
Unreported by local media, City Commissioner Fred Burow unloaded on the proposed Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding process at the April 18 meeting:
“I have a lot of heartburn with this… I think the whole process should be called into question and reevaluated, personally, because of a conflict of interest complaint, apparently… there are other members on the CDC that are recipients of funds out of this deal… It does give a very bad appearance from the word go when you have people that are receiving the funds making decisions on who gets the funds.”
Commissioners accepted the proposed CDBG funding for 2017/2018 and set a public hearing on the matter for May 16. Within the Public Facilities portion of the agenda, Paris Gibson Square (PGS) is set to receive $27,927. However, on February 23, the Community Development Council, which recommends the allocations, agreed to deny any funding to PGS. The February 23 CDC meeting was supposedly the final meeting on these allocations.
Then, on April 3, the CDC met again and the allocations for Public Facilities changed. Now PGS is on the docket to receive the $27,927. What changed and why?
This question was partially answered at the April 18 City Commission meeting. During Commission discussion, City Attorney Sara Sexe explained there had been a complaint from an applicant for Public Facilities funding about a potential conflict with a CDC member. Sexe said she determined there could be an appearance of such a conflict along with a procedural issue and decided it would be best to reconvene the CDC to again review the presentations on those projects.
So who filed the complaint, when was it filed, and what was the nature of the complaint?
The following exchange between Commissioner Fred Burow and City Attorney Sara Sexe at the April 18 Commission meeting offered some glimpse of what had happened:
Burow: “You had a complaint. Who filed the complaint, may I ask?”
Sexe: “It was one of the applicants.”
Burow: “I asked who?”
Sexe: “Paris Gibson Square.”
Burow: “And they originally were turned down for a grant… for $38,000… I did hear some of that, probably not all of the discussion on it, but I did hear some of it, and it didn’t seem that anyone on that committee had anything against Paris Gibson or anything of that nature; it was just more of, they didn’t think that project was a viable project at the time. They just didn’t recommend it.
“So now to find out we have a whole new thing here, and what really is hard for me to go along with this it that when we have a City Commissioner that works for Paris Gibson and it’s not in a janitorial position — if I remember right, it’s CEO or something of that nature, who says hey, we’ve got to file a complaint here because something wasn’t done right and we didn’t get our allotment here or our grant.
“Not to say that that happened but that’s the perception that I see coming out of this from the public. And that’s what I’m concerned about is the perception of it. But then to see that, oh, we went back and rediscussed that and um, hmmm, we did decide to give them $27,927. I can’t quite get over that from the perception point of it.
“I think it’s a black eye on us; I do not intend to support it. I just, like I said, it just looks like a black eye. I’m sure in the public’s mind, we’ll see quite a lot of comments in the paper in the coming days about backroom deals and things of that nature, and I just refuse to have any part of that.”
Sexe went on to say that no matter who had made such a complaint, the same action would have been taken to try to remove the alleged conflict.
While Sexe is simply doing her job as City Attorney, the public heard nothing else about this (was there an actual conflict or was it hearsay?), about specifically who submitted the complaint, as well as the substantive nature of the complaint. Where’s the transparency?
But according to a records request passed on to me by a citizen, Commissioner Houck did some substantial whining in a March 13 email to City Manager Greg Doyon, accusing myriad others of having their own conflicts. In “two wrongs make a right” fashion, Houck, the PGS Director, leads her email:
“I have been hesitant to weigh in on this issue since the organization I work applied.” [sic]
She also takes aim at Kelly and Neil Fortier of NeighborWorks:
“The other issue I feel insulting is that NeighborWorks, the City and GFDA were proposed to have large surplus grants. The Mayor sits as a board member to GFDA. Neil Fornier [sic], a member of the CDC is a staff person at NeighborWorks.”
But the real problem in Houck’s eyes is CDC member Harmony Wolfe:
“Lastly, I would like more than Harmony present for an update. My last communication from Harmony indicated that she was considering a potential lawsuit to the Square and the GFPS.”
Here’s her entire email:
Twenty six minutes later, Doyon emailed Sexe, telling her, “I’ll visit with you on these concerns.”
At the Commission meeting, the public was told that the conflict of interest exists on the CDC and involves an unpaid community volunteer (Wolfe). So, is Houck’s email the complaint Sexe and Burow are referring to? It sure looks like it. And if so, it warrants mentioning that Houck protested only after PGS was denied funding.
To be fair, maybe Wolfe’s presence on the CDC did pose a conflict. Still, what about the conflict of interest involving a City Commissioner working behind the scenes to advocate for the organization that cuts her checks? Does it not matter because no one bothered to complain about it? Houck can have a fiduciary responsibility to the Square, or to the City, but not to both.
I have no doubt that Sara Sexe, along with the rest of City staff, handled this matter with integrity and did the best they could with this self-dealing. Unfortunately, Houck’s behavior here is nothing new. According to the Great Falls Tribune, she unsuccessfully attempted to donate remaining contributions from her 2015 campaign to the Square — again, the (partially taxpayer-funded) organization that pays her salary. A look at her City Commission Facebook page reveals countless shares and promotions of PGS events and business. Add it all up and one wonders: What does Houck really care about… representing all of us, or leveraging her City office for personal and professional gain?
Commissioner Burow deserves a Rhetorical Pulitzer Prize for publically exposing a pervasive issue that City government entities would like to hide under the bed: conflicts of interest.