Pasadena Star-News (Pasadena, CA)
SOUTH PASADENA, CA — There is an old cannon at the War Memorial Building that David Margrave badly wants to see restored.
Mike Ten wants to complete the installation of computer equipment at the senior center, a project he says has been stalled for more than a year.
And now the two South Pasadena councilmen will soon have the resources to pay for both projects while avoiding the traditional city budgeting process they say can often be cumbersome and inefficient when the little things need to get done.
Included as part of the $16.4 million city budget is a provision giving each of the five council members a $5,000 “discretionary fund” to be used for shining cannons, furnishing computer labs, fixing sidewalks or any other pet project that comes along.
“There is nothing worse than a city councilman who says, ‘I’d like to fix it, but I need to speak to the city manager to do it,’ ” said Ten, who, along with Margrave and current Mayor Odom Stamps, approved the discretionary funds last September.
“There are so many little projects,” Margrave said. “The city manager and staff are so engulfed. They can’t reach out in the same way as individual councilmen can.”
The council accounts drew little attention when they were first discussed last fall, but as the city prepares to fund them, watchdog groups are raising red flags about the potential for abuse and conflict.
At the very least, critics say the accounts can lead to the appearance of impropriety. At worst, they say these “slush funds’ could become a mini-patronage system for buying votes, rewarding supporters and influencing city business.
“Anytime a certain public official has control over taxpayer funds to spend as they will, there is a possibility they will use it for private benefit rather than for the public benefit,’ said Carmen Balber of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
“It is really ripe for abuse,’ said Richard McKee, president of the watchdog group Californians Aware. By giving individual council members the power to spend money, he said, the normal public process is circumvented and accountability is lost.
To safeguard against abuse, any spending must be approved by a council majority. If questions or concerns are raised, they can be addressed at a public meeting.
“We don’t have concerns,’ said City Manager Mike Copp.
But that wasn’t the case in September when the accounts were first proposed. Then interim City Manager Gay Forbes and City Attorney Steve Pfahler warned members the council could find itself mired in controversy.
“Removal of scarce tax funding from the consensus building process can lead to the appearance of, or allegations of, misuse, political embarrassment and divisive debate,’ they wrote.
Margrave dismissed these concerns as coming from former City Manager Sean Joyce.
“When Sean Joyce was here he opposed all of that. He is gone now, thank God, and we now have a good city manager,’ Margrave said.
There were also some on the council who disapproved of the plan.
“I thought the potential for abuse was greater than any potential benefit of having those funds available,’ said former Councilman David Saeta, who along with Councilman Michael Cacciotti opposed establishing individual accounts.
“I don’t think it is anything illegal, I just didn’t think it was proper,” Cacciotti said. “It may lead to conflicting members of the community asking for the same money.”
Before approving the accounts, the City Council surveyed 36 cities and counties across the state about their efficacy. Few had similar systems in place, and the ones that did were mainly the larger counties, including Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo.
In fact, representatives from some California cities said the accounts could have unwelcome consequences and warned against the program.
Alameda called it “a terribly bad idea.”
Daly City said: “No way. It should take a majority action to spend money and could quickly get out of hand.” Los Altos Hills warned, “Don’t go down this path unless you absolutely have to.”
Santa Clarita and Santa Cruz both warned of the potential for infighting if council members disagree on how to spend any of the money.
Corning responded: “I think councils end up regretting these things. Eventually the council will be publicly accused of catering to small special interests at the expense of the community.”
The city with the most similar program in place was Lemon Grove in San Diego County. There, the council established a $25,000 joint account that could be used to promote local nonprofits. Unlike in South Pasadena, the groups were required to file an application with the council before the funds could be awarded.
“That seems to keep the attorney satisfied that it does not become a “gift of public funds,” a Lemon Grove official wrote.
Over the last several years, the account was cut down to $5,000 because of budget cutbacks, said Christine Taub, finance director for Lemon Grove.
“When you are going to be laying off someone, you look at other ways you are spending money,” Taub said.
Gary Scott can be reached at  578-6300, Ext. 4458, or by e-mail at [email protected]