Sunday, May 01, 2016

Friends with benefits

This past week it came to light that the New Jersey Attorney General's Office was investigating the  non-profit Friends of Mercer County Parks. The investigation centers on allegations of "official misconduct, corruption of public resources and theft by extortion".

Let's be clear from the very this point NO ONE HAS BEEN PROVEN GUILTY OF ANYTHING. The story will be told over time as the investigation is concluded and charges brought or dismissed.

That said, there are issues here. Serious issues.

Let's start by looking at what a "Friends of "organization is and why it can be beneficial.

Non-profits that are NOT a part of local or state government have a little more leeway in raising funds and dispersing them to aid in a public institution's mission. Think about Friends of your local public library. They are able to take on fundraising tasks and then put the money back into the operation of the library so things can be done that would otherwise be restricted by budgetary concerns.

Works the same with parks.

It costs a lot to develop, improve and maintain public recreation areas. Use fees can help defray some of the costs but they have to be kept reasonable. Government budgets have to always be mindful of the tax burden on the residents.

A "Friends of" group can legitimately raise additional funds to augment those that come from the county budget. This can be for specific items; maybe the creation of a dog park within a park or a nature trail that identifies the various flora to be found there. Maybe the "Friends" group wants to hold a specific event or series of events; concerts, outdoor film screenings and the like, but there is no money in the budget for those kinds of things. Great!

If a group of committed volunteers want to properly organize, raise money and lend a hand in promoting the use of pubic facilities, we're all for it. 

Problems arise, however, when the non-profits are too closely aligned with/tied to the government entity they are supposed to support.

In the matter before us, we have a "non-profit" group that is made up essentially of employees of the very entity being supported. Despite the claims of public officials about transparency and such, the optics are not good.

The parks commission, while semi-autonomous, is still recognized as a duly chartered public entity and as such is subject to the rules of governing local government entity. From purchasing, to public records and the conduct of public meetings, the commission must follow the same rules as a governing body like the town council or county freeholders.

The "Friends of" group, however, (if properly created and operated) is a private entity that is not subject to the same rules regarding public records or sunshine laws.

When you have a group that is so closely tied the government entity it purports to support, as in the case of the Friends of Mercer County Parks, it just plain looks bad.

Most non-profits are overseen by a board of trustees that volunteer their time. This group was made up of parks employees. This begs the question of whether or not they did "Friends of" work on County time (paid for by the taxpayers). If so, were they not "stealing" from the county coffers?

Wouldn't a better approach have been to solicit trustees and members from a cross-section of the county population. Let them decide how and when to raise funds and when and how to disburse the funds raised? They can work in partnership with but completely independent of the Parks Commission and its staff. There should be no cross over.

No public employee of any agency should hold a voting seat on the board of any non-profit "Friends" group. And they certainly should not have any control over monies raised or disbursed by that group.

Even if, and it is a significant "if", there turns out to be no wrongdoing, the potential for abuse of the non-profit "Friends of" group by the Park Commission members and Executive Director has to be  recognized. The only way to eliminate that abuse is to distance the organization from the parks commission, parks staff, etc. 

And if it means the county cannot continue to produce concerts and events at the parks, that's fine. That isn't the county's job anyway. Government should provide and maintain the facilities, not program them.

If there is truly a need for a "Friends of " the county parks organization, then let it come from the populace and NOT be a captive to the administration.