Kudos are in order for Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly. Well, sort of at least.
At the 2/20/18 City Commission meeting, the Mayor apologized to citizens and to the organizations that won’t be receiving almost $200,000 in CDBG grants. Well, kind of apologized anyway.
The reason that some local non-profit organizations will not be receiving the grant money they rely on from last year’s CDBG distribution is because the US Department of Housing and Urban Development revoked the funding due to conflicts of interest occurring within the local Community Development Council and from within the City Commission itself.
I truly appreciate Mayor Kelly’s attempt to take some responsibility here. I think it’s a refreshing and somewhat surprising departure from what has been a disturbing lack of honesty, transparency and accountability within the City Commission for a while now.
You can find the Mayor’s comments and apology here, starting at 42:17 and going until 45:34 on the video. It does seem, however, that the Mayor is still in a little bit of denial about the nature of the conflicts of interest that are at the heart of this entire fiasco.
Kelly: “So I think the best thing to do and something I feel very strongly about is to take full responsibility for the confusion and for the apparent conflict of interest…” (emphasis added)
Well, yes the public has been confused by the contradictory words and behavior exhibited by Kelly and other commissioners as it pertains to their votes to distribute taxpayer funds. But it’s pretty clear that there was no confusion on the part of the commissioners themselves. They knew exactly what they were doing and in some cases they clearly knew it was wrong.
Commissioner Kelly didn’t seem ‘confused’ when on July 21, 2015 at a city commission meeting on the controversial Thaniel Addition, after he had just resigned as a member of the board of NeighborWorks Great Falls, and when a potential conflict of interest loomed large in the public eye, he said: “I have every legal right to vote…but I’m going to choose to abstain. It wouldn’t be appropriate to resign on one issue so I could come back and vote again…Sometimes there’s things that are legal, sometimes there’s things that are right.”
And from the minutes of that meeting: “He (Bob Kelly) explained that he did resign from the NeigborWorks Board after the last Commission meeting. It became apparent that in order for him to do this job, he had to give up the areas of what he perceived to be a conflict. He has every legal right to vote on this item tonight because he was removed from his responsibilities as a Board of Director, but chooses not to.”
Nor did he appear to be confused at a March 21, 2017 city commission meeting when he abstained from voting to give Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Timeliness funds to the Great Falls Development Authority (GFDA), while he was a member of the GFDA Board. One could conclude from this that Kelly knew the clear, unambiguous HUD definition of conflict of interest:
“1. Know the Requirements – In general, conflicts of interest occur when one’s private interest and public duties overlap, resulting in a real or perceived lack of independence or impartiality. Common situations include: Elected officials voting on awarding of funds to organizations where a family member is on the staff or where the elected official is on the subrecipient’s board;…” (emphasis added)
However, at the April 18, 2017 meeting of the commission, Mayor Kelly did not abstain from voting to give the GFDA an additional $40,000 in CDBG allocations for economic development. The Mayor stated he had just resigned from that board, and that he would now participate and vote on the matter. “I feel free and clear of that obligation as a matter of fact,” he said.
‘However, at the April 18, 2017 meeting of the commission, Mayor Kelly did not abstain from voting to give the GFDA an additional $40,000 in CDBG allocations for economic development. The Mayor stated he had just resigned from that board, and that he would now participate and vote on the matter. “I feel free and clear of that obligation as a matter of fact,” he said.’
In addition to the HUD rules (see above), common sense should dictate that if you serve on the board of an organization, like GFDA, you can’t as a City Commissioner vote to allocate funds to that organization. Even if Kelly resigned immediately prior to his affirmative vote in this case, the appearance of impropriety should be obvious, not confusing.
Twice Kelly abstains because of his position on the boards of organizations receiving funding, knowing that “sometimes things are right”, but then he goes ahead and votes on approval of funds for GFDA even though he had recently resigned from that board. What was different?
I would feel a lot better about the sincerity and genuineness of Kelly’s apology had he taken a minute to explain to the ‘confused’ public and clear up the contradictions in his own actions and words as a commissioner and mayor.
By the way, the amount of funding that HUD rescinded from GFDA was the same amount, $40,000, that Kelly felt “free and clear” to vote for. The HUD CDBG requirements are crystal clear and easily accessible and if Kelly didn’t know them, he should have.
In his apology statement the Mayor also referenced “…apparent conflicts of interest”.
According to the HUD letter, which can be read in full here, there were actual conflicts of interest: “At a minimum, these actions create an appearance of impropriety in the CDBG funding process, as well as actual conflicts of interest in some cases.”
Also from the letter, “Carol Bronson’s relationship to Bill Bronson and her position with NeighborWorks Great Falls creates a conflict of interest, because of the exposure to “inside information” and potential for financial benefit for herself and the organization.” (emphasis added)
And finally, from the letter, “The City Commission membership, the final approving authority for the City’s CDBG funding, also included members with business or personal relationships with employees of CDBG subrecipients or subrecipients themselves.”
Is Bob Kelly reading the same HUD letter the rest of us are reading? How in the world can he possibly interpret the HUD conclusions as anything other than findings of not just the appearance of conflicts, but actual conflicts of interest? Including from currently sitting City Commissioners.
So while I sincerely appreciate the Mayor’s attempt to apologize, unfortunately the effort falls short. What is he apologizing for if it’s all just “confusion” and only an “appearance” of impropriety? What it boils down to is a slick way of giving the illusion of remorse while at the same time saying you have nothing to be remorseful about.
“So while I sincerely appreciate the Mayor’s attempt to apologize, unfortunately the effort falls short. What is he apologizing for if it’s all just “confusion” and only an “appearance” of impropriety? What it boils down to is a slick way of giving the illusion of remorse while at the same time saying you have nothing to be remorseful about.”
What if you told your kids that they could go outside to play but that they better not play in the mud. Then after a little while they come in the house all muddy.
You: “I thought I told you not to play in the mud, but you did anyway, so you need to apologize for not doing what you were told.”
Oldest kid: “Okay. I’d like to apologize for the confusion here and the appearance that we were playing in the mud.”
You: “You’re all muddy. Are you telling me that you weren’t playing in the mud?”
Oldest kid: “Well, that certainly wasn’t our intention so please accept our sincere apology.”
Would you as a parent just say “Okay, let’s move on then.”? I doubt it. Yet, what message are we sending to the citizens of Great Falls, including our youth, if we pretend that this CDBG fiasco and the HUD findings is all just a well-intentioned misunderstanding?
So far the only ones being held accountable are the organizations that won’t be getting their funding. It appears that no one, not one person who is actually to blame for this debacle, is being held accountable or taking responsibility in any meaningful manner. That includes Mayor Kelly and his kind-of-but-not-really apology.
And finally, it should be pointed out that Kelly’s apology cannot be taken as a blanket butt-covering for the other city commissioners who are directly culpable – Bill Bronson and Tracy Houck, who sat in stony silence when the Mayor twice gave them the opportunity to comment on this issue, a chance to offer their own apologies.
I wonder why Mayor Kelly is willing to tolerate and excuse their conflicts of interest? And how much money will it cost us taxpayers and our local nonprofits because of his excuses and failure to address these issues head on, as a real leader?
Stay tuned for upcoming episodes in this series covering a full explication of the recent HUD letter, the details and history of the other City Commissioners roles in the recent Great Falls CDBG funding circus, its implications, and how we are going to move forward.