Delaware Wilmington

Patronage Lives in the City of Wilmington

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

14 comments on “Patronage Lives in the City of Wilmington

  1. And… my city tax bill arrived yesterday. Good times.

  2. Be honest, has anything really changed in Wilmington politics? I’ve lived here 43 years and I swear talk like this was in the air the day I arrived. And sure “the city is mad as heck” as they’ve seen this game a hundred times. As for criminal charges and audits bring ’em on, but it will not happen. Sad, as it would at least put a damper on the games the politicians play.

    • cassandram

      There isn’t a much patronage as there used to be, but there is still too much that is incredibly incestuous and still doesn’t know what governing best practices are. I’d even settle for them respecting the fact that Wilmingtonians are the people they work for and where the money they are so cavalier with comes from. Audits and criminal charges are fine, but are still a side show to the fact that this business of buying favor and friends needs to come to an end. Or at least do your own fundraising so you are not using taxpayer funds for this.

      And seriously — neither Theo or Williams was able to capitalize on this spending. It didn’t matter what good you might be doing if at the end of the day you aren’t willing to be a better custodian of the people’s trust.

  3. anonymous redux

    at last, a little love for Rutherford B. Hayes!

    good post, Cassandra.

  4. Cassandra for Council President 2020!

  5. AGovernor

    I concur ! Cassandra for Council President.

  6. Theopalis Gregory

    IMAC’ s finding of racism in State government is real . Look at employee directories at all levels of government , they read like who is who among elected and appointed officials past and present. That’s millions of dollars growing and sustaining families. The little discretionary fund empowering grassroots organizations to participate and be a part of their community is nothing in comparison. I’d let all the facts unfold beyond the News Journal’s reporting before I start to judge. In fact , let’s do a statewide, across all governments , patronage study as we proclaim to be a progressive, good government community.

    • cassandram

      The thing that can’t happen is a deflection of the real problem here and the real responsibility politicians have to be fierce custodians of taxpayer dollars. So while IMAC’s findings might be correct, they don’t have much to do with this situation. And there aren’t many people complaining about grassroots organizations getting these funds. The complaint is that these funds are not available to all of the grassroots organizations or neighborhood associations who are working hard to improve their communities. The complaint is that no taxpayer sees how the money is spent and that there is no mechanism to ensure that the money was spent productively. The complaint is that politicians will show up for their rights and privileges and whatever deflections they can muster while bypassing all of their obligations to the people who provide them with these funds. Process, transparency, accountability — that is what is needed here. And you don’t get to claim to be a progressive, good government community without these.

    • AGovernor

      We are not talking about the state or county here. We are talking about the City of Wilmington and the lack of a clear process, transparency or accountability. Please don’t deflect.

  7. stan merriman

    Patronage lives at all levels of our society and most, maybe all societies. Self Dealing is another very different issue and I think they should be separated. Patronage starts with the premise that the giver prefers to do their business with friends, not adversaries. It is a pretty transient concept because friends don’t always keep the givers trust but it is pretty human to work with friends and allies until betrayal happens. We see it all levels here in Delaware; office holders going to work for the city, county or state government. Staffers running for office or party elected offices. Lobbyists moving from outside to the inside. Pretty hard to undo a concept that you work with and reward allies and friends. I get the argument that in such a small state, it is hard to avoid dealing with friends, acquaintances and relatives.
    Self Dealing is another matter and this appears to be the case of Delaware city, county and state officeholders and former occupiers of these positions of some power, particularly pulling the purse strings. Here the lines of conflict of interest are pretty clear and obvious. If you are put on a board of a non-profit or create one, then exert influence on those controlling the purse strings after you leave office, that is pretty clear and obviously a disadvantage to competing NFP’s. This is why all kinds of boards, NFP’s and Corporate are filled with former office holders.
    White privilege is rampant in corporate America, another sphere where at very high levels doing business with friends or allies is just the way the system works. When you are not white, this huge sphere of economic exchange is largely excluded from a non-white person’s options to “get ahead”.
    This leaves the public sector as the non-privileged person’s potential sphere of influence to “get ahead” and help others to “get ahead”. It doesn’t justify patronage or self dealing from the public trough, but it explains it.
    All of this explains how America has once again created a Gilded Age of economic inequality.

  8. cassandram

    City Council President Shabazz releases a statement regarding the recent blowback on these “Discretionary Funds”:

    Wilmington, Del. (August 1, 2017) As a follow-up to her July 18th statement regarding Council’s allocation of discretionary funds in support of worthy non-profit organizations providing critical services to Wilmington residents, Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz issued the following statement:

    In recent weeks, there has been considerable discussion both in and out of Wilmington regarding City Council’s discretionary fund, and in recent comments, both elected officials and residents across Delaware have questioned the need for an audit of these funds and allocations.

    Historically, the President of City Council has established, subject to the City Code, the process for reviewing applications and allocating funding through scholarships and grants to various nonprofit organizations and initiatives that address the unmet needs, and champion the cause, of Wilmingtonians. And as I have stated previously, there are internal controls in place for the use of funding by Council, the Mayor and the City Treasurer.

    Section 2-368 of the City Code governs the allocation of grant funding in excess of $5,000. This Code provision sets guidelines for application and receipt of such grant funding, and includes the requirement that reports be submitted to the City Auditor.

    The City Auditor’s office has always had access to records of Council grant allocations and of the organizations which receive funding, and I respect the prerogative of the City Auditor to independently determine whether an audit of any expenditures is warranted. In fact, I welcome such outside scrutiny as a means to affirm the legitimacy of Council’s support for various causes and organizations that directly benefit Wilmington.

    Some questions have been raised about Student Disabilities Advocate, Inc. (SDA), which seeks to address at-risk youth in Wilmington who can benefit from an informed advocate as they move through any number of challenging situations interfering with their educational pursuits and their future prospects.

    This program is consistent with the recommendations of the CDC Community Advisory Council as well. As most Wilmingtonians have heard by now, the CDC has investigated youth firearm violence as a public health epidemic in Wilmington, and the Community Advisory Council which was formed as a result of the CDC’s findings is working to identify processes to help identify those youth most at risk for committing gun violence and to provide targeted interventions to set them on the correct path.

    SDA represents the capacity to address one component of this important work. If this grant funding helps the organization prevent even a single child from winding up behind bars – or, worse, from being added to the mounting list of shooting and homicide victims – then I feel it will have been a worthwhile investment in our children.

    I regret that the present debate surrounding the process for fund allocations has overshadowed the benefits that Wilmingtonians have long derived from such grants.
    I stand behind the support I have given to organizations, and I stand behind the decisions of my colleagues on Council to support those individuals and entities they have selected with their own discretionary funding, much in the same way that I respect the prerogative of the Mayor and City Treasurer to do the same.

    That said, it is also clear that we, as public officials, must be open to constructive suggestions from the public. And I welcome debate and discussion on this matter.
    To this end, as previously stated in my July 18th statement, I plan to work with my Council colleagues to identify opportunities for greater transparency of grant funding allocations which include, but are not limited to, the following:

    • Connecting funding decisions with the priorities set forth in the City Council Strategic Plan, which is expected to be finalized and adopted by Council in September
    •Exploring a grant application period for significant requests to help in streamlining the application process and in making funding decisions
    •Enhancing communication channels among Council Members to ensure greater transparency and coordination regarding causes we support individually and collectively
    •Making data on grant funding allocations available on City Council’s new website, which is under development, so that this information is readily available to the public for review and scrutiny
    •Exploring legislative avenues to enhance controls on significant grant fund allocations made by Council, the Mayor and the City Treasurer

    • cassandram

      So. Once you plow through all of the huffing and puffing here, there’s a couple of real problems. You can’t claim “internal controls” without letting people know what they are. No audit is going to be especially meaningful if those controls aren’t published so that people looking for grants and the people who get them know what the lay of the land is.

      But the real issue here is this Strategic Plan coming from Council. I don’t quite know what this is, but it sounds like Council is looking to predetermine how these funds get used outside of the usual budgeting process. A process that is normally public and where you get to see some rationale for how moneys are allocated. My guess is that the idea behind this plan is to jumpstart the CDC recommendations implementation. Which certainly could have been done in the regular budget process, right? I don’t know what is in this plan, but it sure looks like budgeting that is trying to avoid FOIA.

      It makes no sense to abandon the work that EVI was doing — and the fact that EVI was setup, and functioning — in favor of providing startup funds to SDA. It isn’t as though EVI wasn’t running or accountable (and they provided their reports) and doing the work that is supposed to be in alignment with the CDC recommendations well before the CDC made those recommendations.

      There’s a lot of “exploring” in the remediation steps listed above but no commitment to doing much of anything to fix the process, transparency of accountability issues here. And this controversy won’t go away until serious commitments are made.

  9. AGovernor

    Nothing in that statements gives me confidence that any sort of meaningful change will take place.

    I foresee the President will simply say an application is in line with the strategic plan or is not in line; no scrutiny of the program or budget, no committee review, little if any accountability.

    Nothing will change.

  10. Wondering

    So according to this statement “The City Auditor’s office has always had access to records of Council grant allocations and of the organizations which receive funding, and I respect the prerogative of the City Auditor to independently determine whether an audit of any expenditures is warranted.” Will the City Auditor make a list of all grants that were made for the last ten years? Especially, since you have now become complicit in these accountability issues. Basically she has shifted the blame to your department. There has to be a record of these checks being written and sent. In the context of transparency put them on-line and let the taxpayers look at the list and we will do the research to see how much patronage is going on.

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