The bane and benefit of constituent services funds: a response to the Washington Post editorial
Constituent services funds are a tough nut. These are funds used by elected officials to help out individuals and groups in need. But these funds are funded by private donations--and donors are likely to donate in order to curry favors from the elected-- and for the most part, the help goes to supporters, so the funds, legally sanctioned, are more or less "incumbency protection programs," which government isn't supposed to be supporting in an overt fashion.
The Post, in editorializing ("Mayor Bowser should get rid of her constituent services fund") about why Mayor Bowser should not have such funds, lists the number of agencies and programs at her command, and states that with access to so many resources the/a Mayor doesn't need yet another slush-like fund.
But the Post misses two essential points.
First, for the most part, government isn't set up to help individuals outside of ongoing programs or on an ad-hoc basis. If you're down on your luck and can't pay your utility bill, or something else, there is no "government office" to go to get help on a one-time basis. You can get help if you qualify for various government assistance programs, but that doesn't provide help "in arrears."
Or Councilmember Evans seems to think providing sports events tickets to constituents is a good way to spend constituent service funds. For the most part, that wouldn't be a legitimate or good use of government funding, so tapping the constituent service fund could be seen as an acceptable action.
Constituent services funds provide a way to give assistance to individuals that normal government institutions and processes are unequipped to provide. That's why elected officials create such funds and why the funds are provided via private donations.
A good example of city strictures on help for individuals is how one of the city's Advisory Neighborhood Commission (the equivalent of New York City's "Community Boards") attempted to spend some of its government-provided funding for gloves and hats appropriate for winter use for homeless people, and the city's legal office ruled that this would be considered spending monies on individuals and was therefore not legal.
From Meeting Minutes, April 2015, ANC3B:
... That grant is being reviewed because a grant to Friendship Place by another ANC was ruled illegal because it was for clothing such as winter hats and gloves.Second, DC lacks systematic funding programs to support community events and organizations. Constituent service funds can be used to support community organizations and events. It doesn't really happen much, but it would be a theoretical possibility.
The Post has been against constituent services funds for a long time. I don't disagree with the editorial writers that constituent services funds are most likely misused and are seen by elected officials as most important for abetting incumbency. For that the Post is happy to get rid of the funds without recommending any alternatives that can provide the kind of ad-hoc support that such funds are supposed to be providing.
Flickr photo fom the participatory budgeting process for NYC Councilman Jumaane D. Williams by Daniel LeTorre.
Participatory Budgeting as one alternative. About four years ago, when the Post wrote a similar editorial, I responded stating that participatory budgeting could be a solution to ethics issues with constituent service funds.
See "Missing the point on constituent service/discretionary funds available from legislators" and "More on ethics: discretionary funding-constituent funds."
Some councilmembers, to improve the process, have organizes citizens to consider the requests and make decisions and appropriations in an independent process, called "participatory budgeting," in a manner that simultaneously improves citizen participation and democratic outcomes while helping people and reducing the potential for misuse.
The Mayor of San Jose, California has introduced participatory budgeting as a way for citizens to be much more involved in the city's annual budget process ("Budget input from community set for March," San Jose Mercury-News").
-- Participatory Budgeting Project
An additional move would be to create systematic funding programs for neighborhood improvements, groups, and citizen projects. This wouldn't help individuals in need, but there should be funding programs that support neighborhood programs and projects and initiatives.
The projects don't all have to be big. But like with microenterprise funding programs for the impoverished in underdeveloped countries (e.g., programs by the Grameen Bank) sometimes groups or a block just need a little bit of money to assist in their execution of projects.
I mentioned this in my piece "Outline for a proposed Ward-focused (DC) Councilmember campaign platform and agenda."
- Create a small grants program to support neighborhood improvement projects (e.g., Toronto Bicycle User Groups, London Cyclist Campaign ward-based programming, Transport for London community cycling grants, Savannah's "Grants for Blocks" program)
Conclusion. It is unfortunate that the Post's "solution" to evident problems with constituent services funds is to eliminate rather than to significantly improve the process and increase the potential for democracy.