Patronage. This used to be a pretty big thing in an older political era. Before there were EEO rules, before cities started to downsize, and when a political party could control every aspect of a city’s life it was entirely possible to make a political career out of smart and generous use of patronage. Your family (your extended family), loyalists in your Ward, people you wanted to do favors for or bank favors from could all be in line for jobs, contracts, grants, strategic invisibility (from law enforcement), enhanced city services — because those in power could tend to that power by being a river of largess to friends and allies in their community. All of these practices have come under some much-needed scrutiny (and people have gone to jail), but some of the old habits die hard.
in Wilmington, plenty of folks will tell you that so and so escapes certain kinds of scrutiny because they are related to or friends with someone in charge. No one can prove anything, but it can be a head-scratcher as to why all of the houses on your block are getting L&I notices except the well-connected one. And that house is often the house in the worse shape.
Which brings me to the slush funds held by City Council, the Mayor’s office and the Treasurer’s office. The City Council fund has come under the most scrutiny, but once you get beyond how the money was spent there’s a few things that you know about all of these funds:
- Taxpayers did not know the magnitude of any of these funds and nor did they know what these funds were used for until Christina Jedra started digging.
- Taxpayers would have never known about these expenditures until Christina Jedra got out her FOIA pen. There’s no public accounting for this spending, nor is there is there any public assessment of how the money was spent and how effective it was.
- Plenty of taxpayers did not even know that these funds were available. Plenty of the City’s non-profit leadership is really distressed that there was no advertising of this money, there is no process to apply for it, there’s no published evaluation criteria and the decision is made by Council President.
- Even though we’re told there are standards for awarding these funds, it is hard to see where they applied. Churches, for-profit businesses got some of this money as did City Council Members who traveled to conferences.
- They look like patronage.
The City Council fund goes back as far as Ted Blunt I understand. Not sure about the Mayor’s fund history. The Treasurer’s fund is new as of this budget year and why the Treasurer needs a slush fund, I’ll never know. But I want to go beyond the discussion of who deserved what (I mean, look at how many churches got funding from Williams) and be really clear that if any part of Wilmington government cannot be trusted to spend taxpayer funds in a more open and accountable way, that the people in that part of government should be swept aside and replaced with those who get the PUBLIC part of Public Service.
This business is not your private fiefdom. If you listen to Theo Gregory’s interview with Ivan Thomas, he wants you to know that a) he inherited this process, 2) that he was well within his purview, and that he is upset that 2 black people in Wilmington can’t sit down to make a deal. Of course, anyone can sit down to make a deal here — they just have to be sure their own checkbooks are open. But I’ll point out here that there is more process to getting VC or Angel funding than there is to getting money from ANY of these city slush funds. And VC or Angel fund money comes with pretty serious performance metrics too.
Hanifa Shabazz has been tone deaf on this as well. She needs to be reminded that is wasn’t two months ago where city property owners were asked for 7.5% more money in property tax, many jobs were cut in the city including WFD jobs. If we are meant to be on some austerity program to get our books in order over the next few years, then Council should get with the program. And making the first check you sent to Theo Gregory so he could kickstart his business just doesn’t pass the smell test. I don’t care what plan might be in the works for this money — if you are in the legacy business, do it on your own dime. Like the rest of us do.
Mike Purzycki has been more engaging on this, but then no one is holding him accountable for Williams’ spending. Unlike the Council situation where Shabazz is being thrown under the bus for Gregory’s spending. Still — boxing tickets as economic development doesn’t pass the smell test. If your Economic Development shop is functioning, make sure they are set up with the process and funds to provide small grants. Every other politician in this state has to fund raise in order to buy tickets to events. So should you.
Councilman Bob Williams is having a moment — calling for criminal charges and audits. Let’s not forget that he voted for every single Williams budget — that had both the Williams and Gregory slush funds in them. It is only now — now that there is a new Council President who would not make him Chair of the Public Safety Committee — that he has found all of this new outrage over these funds. Still, even a broken clock is right twice a day, but there’s not much to trust in this new bandwagon.
Time to fix this mess. If the city is hurting for money then pare these funds back A LOT and give the funds to Kevin Kelley to program more stuff for kids to do. If I was Hanifa Shabazz, I would have gotten out in front of this train — with legislation that would dictate a public process for application, award and monitoring of all Discretionary Funds. Put it all out on the web and let everyone have a crack at those funds. Get City Council to vote for approval on all grants (not scholarships). Let the Mayor and the Treasurer explain to taxpayers why they need to maintain their slush funds. But be the hero here instead of remaining a punching bag for everyone else’s agenda. And don’t let a single department have a secret budget presentation next year.
The entire city is mad as heck over this. And rightly so. But all of you need to get this openly fixed with some built in accountability. And that needs to be done soon.