Supervisors' Spending Priorities Questioned
GLORIA PENNER (Host): There are politicians, those who watch politicians, and politicians that need watching. After all, elected politicians control the public’s tax money and find all kinds of ways to spend those funds. Are they spending the public’s hard-earned money wisely and well? After all, it’s your pocketbook, it’s my wallet, it’s our bank accounts. So, JW, let’s start with the reports that are emerging this week from 10News I-Team, and San Diego CityBeat collaborated on this one, about how Supervisor Bill Horn is spending tens of thousands of dollars on neighborhood reinvestment grants to an organization—sometimes they’re called slush funds but that’s not a pretty name—to an organization based in La Mesa called Life Perspectives. Why has the $80,000 in public funds caused concern?
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Well, let me first say Mr. Horn dances to a different tune than most politician. He controls his little fiefdom up there and pretty much does what he wants, and the administrative end of the county will not putz with him. They leave him alone. He can do pretty much anything he cares. In this case, it’s 3 years, eighty grand, for Life Perspective (sic). And here’s the – here’s how he does this. Here’s how he pulled it off. First, on the grant, there’s no information about specifically what the outfit does. The money was for a race so the county council sees this grant come in and say, oh, it’s for a race to help a worthy cause. Sure, give them the money. And the worthy cause is this Life Perspective. So the money doesn’t go directly to this pro-life group. It goes through this race to raise money for the pro-life group. Horn’s done this before. Then when the city – or, when the county council’s Sansone, John Sansone, is asked about it, he says, well, all we look at is the grant. So the people that write the grant don’t spell out what’s going on and they hide behind the – they hide behind this, you know, it’s going to be one of those runs where everybody contributes money for every mile for…
PENNER: It’s a fundraiser.
AUGUST: Yeah, it’s a fundraiser.
PENNER: Right, called Life Walk, I think.
AUGUST: Yeah, something like that. And that, you know, I’m thinking of that and it’s like Hitler youth has a fundraiser and they have a run and the run is Hitler youth run and they give – they raise money and then they’re able to fund the Hitler youth group.
PENNER: All right.
AUGUST: I’m not equating this group to Hitler youth but I’m just trying to say to me, it strikes me as just ridiculous just because they go through a step of fundraising that allows them to give this money to them.
PENNER: Well, that certainly is one issue. I think the other issue that has emerged—and you’ve read the material, Scott and Alisa—is that Life Perspectives provides lesson plans for K-thru-12 children that theoretically cover some religious issues. And, Alisa, what problem would that present?
ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, NPR News): Well, I mean, I think the issue is not so much Life Perspectives or Walk for Life, the issue is is that these little slush funds that the county supervisors control are not adequately overseen by anybody. There’s nobody kind of going through where is their money – or there’s nobody adequately looking over their shoulder to see where these things are going. He – of course, he cannot use public funds to fund a religious organization. That’s against the Constitution, the separation of church and state. That is not allowed. And it’s very clear, I mean, from their information that Life Perspectives is a strongly Christian group and they, you know, I – We shouldn’t be using public funds to fund a group like this.
PENNER: That’s one aspect of it. The other part that came up through this investigative report, Scott was that the Life Walk, with Bill Horn’s name, appears on posters and tee shirts and elsewhere just that Life Walk’s going to take place just a few days before Bill Horn runs against Vista City Councilman Steve Gronke, and since the walk is funded by the grant and the promotional materials are part of the walk, does that mean that our public money is being spent on Bill Horn’s campaign?
SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): I think you see this in any instance when the government is funding a faith-based organization and we have found ways, federal and state, to fund organizations to do some sort of service for the state and have that be separate from whatever they do as an organization. Somehow that’s worked out in other spheres. And whatever line – I’m not sure how the line works in the county. I’m not sure how they can possibly justify that the money goes to this without it funding these ancillary religious positions. I mean, the fact is public money cannot be used to fund a religious position but it can be used to fund a organization who might be doing a service on behalf of the citizenry and have that be separate somehow. The question is, is how separate this was. And I think that’s what the wrangling is right now. I personally find it distasteful but is there a line there that is not defined? That we have an opportunity to now define, I think is the question going forward. But it’s very difficult to see whether this was a direct quid pro quo for the religious instruction being paid for or whether this was some sort of other service. And when you have a government handing out money to nonprofits and churches, this is going to be a problem perpetually.
AUGUST: And this isn’t the first time it’s happened with him. Jeff McDonald did a real good story in the U-T recently about the Green Oak Ranch Ministries. They got 95 grand from Horn, too. This is a church, not required to file a nonprofit, and they paid – Horn’s office paid for something called the Big Band Bash in Oceanside, which was a fundraiser for the church. So this is his pattern of behavior.
PENNER: Okay, we’re going to continue this discussion. We’re going to talk about other county uses of public funds that have come to light recently but we’re also going to ask whether there’s been any response from Supervisor Horn on this report that has come out this week, and we’ll take your calls as well. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: Okay, this is the Editors Roundtable, and we are moving along now. We’re really talking about how county funds are spent. They’re not really county funds. They are your funds. It’s the money that you pay in taxes. And there is some questions being raised about the way Bill Horn spends the – where he spends his so-called what’s – neighborhood reinvestment grant, otherwise known as discretionary fund, that’s a nice way of putting it. And we have others – other issues that have come up. We have the increases in pay for the district attorney, for the sheriff. They both got about a ten or eleven thousand dollar increase in pay which they have taken. And then the county also spent $100,000 this week to put a measure on the ballot to reaffirm the county ban on project labor agreements so that union labor wouldn’t have to be hired for construction jobs. So there’s a lot of spending going on in the county even though they have had to lay off 170 workers. They’ve cut out about 1400 jobs. They’ve cut out after school programs for the poor and the needy. They’ve cut out programs for the sick and the old. So, you know, these are all issues that we’re dealing with right now. And let’s hear from Ann in North Park. See what she has to say. Ann, you’re on with the editors.
ANN (Caller, North Park): Hello?
PENNER: Hi, Ann. Yeah, we’re waiting for your comment.
ANN: Oh, yeah. I work for a nonprofit and I have for many years, over the last 20 years. And the money that you’re talking about is community development block grant money. It’s federal money. It comes in, it has lots of regulatory clauses in it and I can’t believe but that these uses are banned by the federal regulations. So I hope that the press gets out there and does some deeper investigations because these are often used as slush funds for personal stuff or, you know, your friends in the community but they’re not supposed to be and they do have lots of regulations you sign about what you can and can’t do with it.
ANN: And I don’t…
PENNER: Thank you, Ann. I want to check with JW and make sure. Is this a community block…
AUGUST: I don’t know. I don’t think – You know, it may well be. The way they shuffle the money around in the vault and they stack the hundred dollar bills in this corner then move it around, it may be. But I don’t think it’s federal block grant money. I don’t.
PENNER: The discretionary…
AUGUST: Off the top of my head, yeah.
PENNER: It comes out of the…
PENNER/AUGUST: …general fund…
PENNER: It comes out of the general fund.
AUGUST: Right, I mean, he couldn’t do this if the feds were watching him. In fact, Horn would be spending some time at Boron if he had done this with federal money.
PENNER: All right. Thank you, Ann, for your comment but that was an interesting thought. So federal money, you don’t want to play with that one. Let’s hear from Robby in North County now. Robby, you’re on with the editors.
ROBBY (Caller, North County): Oh, thank you. Yeah, I have a plan. It seems like we’re talking about funding things through deception and I think actually there’s a kind of a larger thing going on here, just that there’s a lot of things going on around using deception. And the one that sort of comes to mind for me right off is this woman who was basically beaten down by the political system through that ad that was illegal. What’s her name, Sharon something-another, in the Department – in Washington, D.C. And then…
PENNER: What was her name? Sharrod?
ROBBY: Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
PENNER: Yeah, we know. Right, she was…
AUGUST: She’s in town.
PENNER: She is in town. She was out there making a speech and a part of it was taken out of context and she was fired from her federal job and then the president tried to reinstate her.
ROBBY: So my point about this is that there’s been a lot of talk about the deception itself but what I think is really important and hasn’t really been talked about is the fact that it seems as though now there’s a bunch of different things going on in our society where there really is not much popular interest for them or popular support and so that the only way that anything can be done to support them is through deception itself and yet there’s nobody talking about that.
PENNER: Okay, well, I think we’re trying to today or at least around the edges. Thank you very much, Robby. So we are going to have to wrap up this segment. I’m sorry, JW. Good work for you…
AUGUST: Well, Dave Moss…
PENNER: …Dave Moss, David Rolland and the San Diego CityBeat. Good job. And please keep us informed as to how this one develops. Let’s do just a once around the table very quickly on the issues that I raised. $100,000 spent on a ballot measure, increases for the sheriff and the DA. Scott, what’s your response?
LEWIS: The county is a – just an interesting body. I mean, they – their – 80% of their work is mandated by the state or federal government yet they – so their decisions literally are not that difficult. They go through far fewer controversial issues that the city council does yet they get paid twice as much to deal with it, the county supervisors, I’m talking about. They’re going to need to come to reality at some point, too, and decide what their purpose is, what they’re doing there. And, you know, if it’s to fund a pro-life group to teach kids about what a fetus is and how it relates to God, you know, then I think that the citizens will evaluate whether that’s their top priority or not.
BARBA: I mean, at this point this is – it’s all about transparency and it’s all about the voters making sure that their elected officials are doing what they want them to be doing with their funds. And I think that this – there’s been increased scrutiny to these funds over the last three or four months because of a lot of good reporting out there, and I think that people are going to pay attention.
PENNER: But realistically, JW, you know, everybody is busy scratching for a living, trying to make ends meet, not everybody but a lot of people these days, certainly almost 11% of San Diego workers. Do people really have a chance to follow closely what their elected representatives do? Or do they go out, you know, they mark the ballot, and then they forget about it?
AUGUST: Well, but they – I know that is an excuse. We’re all very busy. But a democracy depends on an informed public. That’s our job. But the public’s got to do their part. They gotta pay attention. I mean, we get what we pay for and…
BARBA: Can I just…
AUGUST: …we need to take care of business.
BARBA: I think if anybody’s been following the news recently out of LA and this little town of Bell, you know, south of LA, basically their county supervisor – no, their city manager and the assistant city manager and the police chief were making a half a million dollars in this teeny…
AUGUST: And they’ll go find…
BARBA: …impoverished county, and they’re out of a job and they’re probably out of a pension but it’s really because people were not paying attention about how much money – and it – The front page of the LA Times today is that these people were paying a significantly higher property tax in this little town than any other county in California.
PENNER: There were – And there were just a few thousand of them.
PENNER: Yeah. And they were paying…
BARBA: So this is what I mean, and this is – and these people are suddenly, they’re coming to the table and they’re saying, hey, wait a second, you’re ripping us off. And I think that once San Diegans begin to look around at what a lot of people are doing with their discretionary funds and the kind of fiscal responsibility they’re bringing to bear on our city finances, you know, maybe, you know, it’s time to stand up and say, you know…
PENNER: Okay, we’re going to save a few minutes for this last topic.