Sunday, February 14, 2010

Editorial: Marin Supervisors need to be more open about pet account

Staff Report
Posted: 02/14/2010 09:03:49 AM PST

FOR YEARS, the county Board of Supervisors' discretionary fund was one of the Civic Center's best-kept secrets. Supervisors would use it to dole out cash to local civic groups and efforts that knew about it and knew who to ask for money.

In 2001, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury helped pull back the curtain when it questioned the propriety of each supervisor having access to a pot of taxpayer cash for pet projects.

We want to be clear on one point. Most of the time, the money is spent on modest grants for worthy local projects and needs. Money from this fund has helped support: Safe Grad nights at local high schools; scholarships for needy kids to go to summer camps; programs for Alzheimer's patients and their families; and local civic events and programs.

Until recent years, however, those expenses were never clearly detailed in the county budget. When supervisors finally agreed to do that, it required a complex journey through the county's Web site to findÊwhere the reports were tucked away - and that information was made public after the the money had been spent. Each supervisor could spend $100,000 a year without the county board - or anyone else - having to approve the checks before they were issued.

Supervisor Judy Arnold last year got her colleagues to put the appropriations on their agenda for approval before the checks are written. While helpful, the board still merely rubber-stamps each supervisor's requests.

We applaud the grudging moves toward more transparency, but it is still difficult to figure out where the items and details are on the supervisors' agenda.

Our beef is with the process far more than with how the money is spent. The lack of clarity and accountability is especially troubling at a time when supervisors are talking about difficult budget cuts.

Each and every expense should be clearly presented on the agenda. You shouldn't have to be an insider to be able to find the information.

Of course, when it comes to accepting political credit for "their" contribution of taxpayer money, supervisors often are gladly taking bows in front of their constituents and reap political rewards.

The board also needs to establish clear policies for how the money is spent.ÊSupervisors recently approved Supervisor Charles McGlashan's request for $10,000 for Teens Turning Green, a local environmental awareness group, "to support the effort to get the single-use bag ban ordinance legislation approved."

The item was approved by the board without question. There should have been some.

To use the money to promote public awareness about environmental issues among teens is a sound goal, but to support political action or a campaign is a misuse of taxpayer money.

When asked, McGlashan said that the description of the expense was "an error."

By having well-defined policies, such an "error" should not get past county staff, its fiscal and legal watchdogs and then be approved by the supervisors. Taxpayers, after all, are writing the checks, and they deserve better.

Given the county's serious budget problems, each supervisor having a private account of taxpayer cash for pet projects does not mesh with their argument about the need to cut programs and services.Ê

Taxpayers deserve clarity and accountability when it comes to how their hard-earned money is spent.

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