Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, August 07, 2015

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.

Participatory Budgeting NYC materialsFlickr 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."

In cities like Cleveland, Chicago, and New York, each councilmember gets a tranche of money to spend on community projects.  Those funds can be misused for incumbency protection just like constituent services 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."
Another area for participatory budgeting: disbursing funds to community groups from legal settlements. In June, I wrote about participatory budgeting as being a far better way to distribute settlement funds from legal judgments than merely directing monies to organizations with connections to the city's Attorney General. See "Participatory "budgeting" and disposition of funds from legal settlements."

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.

Labels: , , ,


At 9:40 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I've never understood why local politicians don't solicit for a 501(c)(3) that would then act as "rich uncle" to distribute money out. Outside the scope of political contirbutions and fundraising laws.

Shows how hard it to raise money.

Some sort of DC micro loan program, or a housing finance agency with protection, could be useful. For instance, the German model where you pay an extra 1/12 of the mortgage every month, so in a year you've saved up an extra payment.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I vaguely remember savings programs at banks and credit unions ("Christmas Club") and there were saving stamps/savings bonds when I was a kid through the Post Office.

2. Tacoma Housing Authority might do some of this kind of stuff. They do some things in this arena. I could never find my notes, but I need to do a piece on their innovativeness.

3. The c3, I'd think there would be some ethics-legal issues. E.g. what happened with Vincent Fumo in Philadelphia.

In short, I know there are problems with these kinds of funds. That will always be there. But by going to participatory budgeting, you'd put in some objectivity and critical distance.

In any case, I'd rather do that than junk the funds in their entirety, which is something that the Post is completely tone deaf on.


Post a Comment

<< Home