August 21, 2013
The committee discussed a number of possible reforms including tighter rules for neighborhood grants and a resolution asking the General Assembly for a change in state law that would give the Metro Ethics Commission subpoena powers.
But the proposals Ackerson is outlining call for a drastic shift in policy such as blocking the use of neighborhood grant funding for community picnics and festivals unless there is a public purpose such as a health fair.
“At the end of the day I hope it will be equally offensive to all of us because that’s what it’s going to take here. This can’t be a situation where we say don’t touch my project or this or that,” says Ackerson. “Let’s just vomit the ideas out there and flush through. If we’re going to bring out real change then let’s really do it.”
He says it’s important lawmakers put bold ideas out for the public to debate in the wake of Barbara Shanklin’s expulsion trial, which in part centered on the use of discretionary funds.
The plan also would forbid a single council member from spending over $15,000 on a single event. It would effectively stop the funding district events such as Newburg Day, which has received grants over $20,000 from Shanklin’s office in years past.
Each council members receives $75,000 in Neighborhood Development Funds, $100,000 in Capital Infrastructure Funds and $30,000 for office expenses.
For years Democrats and Republicans have sparred over the use of those funds, but many have argued those expenditures are needed at the district level.
“I don’t want the public to believe that we have no rules and we don’t try to follow our rules, and that we haven’t worked diligently to improve them,” says Council President Jim King, adding a lack of oversight in the past created a “lax culture.”
Council Republicans announced a series of proposed changes to spending rules last week in the hopes the Shanklin verdict has put more pressure on their colleagues. Among their changes are amendments that would cap neighborhood grants at $15,000 and put the remaining amount in the infrastructure account.
But Ackerson described those change as “putting lipstick on a pig,” and his plan seeks to eliminate the use long held practices such as of council offices using Kroger gift cards and pre-approved travel expenditures.
Republican critics argue Ackerson is trying to save face after being one of the seven votes to retain Shanklin, who faced serious ethics charges.
Republican Kelly Downard claims Ackerson is “grandstanding” and lost political clout among Democrats and Republicans after being one of three swing votes that saved Shanklin from removal.
“Oh sure he’s gotten hurt bad. He exonerated Barbara Shanklin. He underestimated what that would do to him,” Downard said.
Still, Ackerson’s plan puts more scrutiny on neighborhood grants by requiring all expenditures be subject to a full council vote. Currently, the Appropriations Committee allows discretionary spending under $5,000 to go to the consent calendar for passage.
“We may have longer meetings, but to force more discussion about what’s taking place so we can make sure we’re making good business decisions. We’ve got to cut out pizza parties and things like that, and spending tax dollars on those sorts of things. That’s not our purpose,” says Ackerson.