Friday, September 18, 2009

Brown questions ICRC over contract with county

Bill Brown, operations manager for Riverside County's County Service Areas (CSA), requested a joint meeting on Sept. 17 between the Idyllwild Community Recreation Council (ICRC) board and CSA 36's advisory committee to discuss county concerns over its contract with ICRC and clarify county positions about contract requirements. Brown called the joint meeting because ICRC reports on a monthly basis to CSA 36 but is also obligated, by the contract it signed with the Economic Development Agency (EDA), to report directly to Brown, the CSA administrator. “I called the meeting because the county is concerned about process,” said Brown,” and I have received reliable information from sources other than the press that raised county concerns. It is important the people know that the county initiated this meeting.” Brown said.

The CSA 36 advisory committee opened the capacity attendance meeting by running through a routine agenda. Then ICRC chairperson Chris Singer summarized her board's understanding of its publicly funded role in managing Hill recreation and its separate donor-driven role in building a new community center.

Brown then questioned ICRC’s board about their understanding of and compliance with the terms of the contract they signed in 2007, pointing out areas of non-compliance that neither ICRC nor the CSA advisory committee seemed to be aware of.
Brown began by calling attention to the importance of public funding of Hill recreation. He stressed that although the county is the conduit for disbursing Hill recreation money, it does not "fund" recreation. Residents of CSA 36 fund recreation through special parcel taxes. The county administers and disburses parcel taxes to ICRC based on ICRC’s submission to EDA of a proposed annual budget along with any mid-course corrections. Brown linked the public's financing of recreation to its right to attend all ICRC meetings. Brown reasoned that since the public pays for Hill recreation, they should be allowed to attend all meetings affecting recreation decisions. To illustrate his point, Brown referenced an ICRC annual budget line item. The line item allocated public money to pay a secretary to sit in board meetings and take minutes. Brown asked Singer, "Is that (use of public money) integral to providing public recreation?" "Yes," said Singer. "Then isn't the public's presence important at these meetings to set recreation priorities?" asked Brown. Singer acknowledged it was.

The issue of whether the public's right to attend all ICRC meetings should be unrestricted is one over which ICRC and the county continue to disagree. ICRC has maintained that, as a private board, they have the right to restrict public attendance at meetings they define as closed. "We're a private agency and our meeting don't have to be open," said Singer. Some county officials, including Brown, believe that ICRC, as a recipient of public tax money, should not restrict attendance at any of its meetings, and should conduct any and all business affecting public recreation with the public present. Brown questioned why ICRC changed its bylaws, 3 months after signing its contract with the county, to revise a provision providing unrestricted public access to adding a section sanctioning special or closed meetings. "We were fairly comfortable [when the contract was signed] that you were an open meeting board," said Brown. "Why did you change that 3 months after signing the contract?" Looking out at the large crowd, Brown said, "This is an open meeting. The worst thing is to hold a closed meeting." Brown may have had some heat on this issue, since he and assistant Mike Franklin were refused attendance at a recent ICRC meeting.

Brown raised ICRC's apparent failure to comply with specific contract terms in its county contract - i.e. to provide its proposed budget directly to the CSA administrator on the agreed date of February 1. ICRC had been submitting it only to the CSA 36 advisory committee, and generally after the Feb.1 date; failure to provide directly to the county administrator a copy of a monthly written report on recreation activities. ICRC routinely provides an oral, but not written report from the recreation director to the CSA advisory committee; and failure to request approval from the county in advance for expenses (significant salary increases) not accounted for in the pre-approved budget. ICRC had raised the proposed salary increases with the CSA 36 advisory committee but did not get the approval directly from Brown that the contract stipulates. Brown explained that the CSA advisory committee cannot authorize or approve budget revisions. Its role is to “review and comment” to the CSA administrator; Brown also questioned a $5,000 expenditure of public money as a gift to a private organization without prior county approval especially since, in county CSA budget processes, there is no line item authorization for such a gift. "When you want to give my [taxpayer] money, you have to use my rules," he said.

Brown emphasized that ICRC had signed its contract with the county, not with the CSA 36 advisory committee, and has a direct reporting responsibility to EDA as the contract states.

When some in the audience suggested that Brown called this meeting only because of reports in the press, Brown said that was not correct. He said he has received calls from the public questioning current ICRC management policies. The questioner went on to say that 90 percent of CSA 36 residents approve of what ICRC is doing. "My job," said Brown, "is to make certain that the questions of the 10 percent are answered and that the [ICRC] board is doing nothing inappropriately." He advised ICRC that following the contract with the county would be the best way to build confidence both with the county and the public.

After the meeting, Brown said he was surprised that the ICRC board could not answer financial questions about their Town Hall budget, instead deferring those questions to accountant Jim Ludy. “The county asked many questions,” said Brown. “ICRC did not have answers about their own budget asking me, at one point, ‘where did you get those numbers?’” The numbers came, said Brown, from ICRC’s budget and the county will be requesting written answers to any not answered at the meeting. Brown said he is specifically concerned about the allocation of 72 percent of budget to salary and only 9 percent to programs, as well as what Brown reads as a 47 percent increase in salary for recreation director Bob Lewis. He wants clarification on those matters.

Brown said the additional impetus for calling the Sept. 17 meeting was the 2010 expiration of the current contract with ICRC. “We wanted [at the meeting] to educate the public about how recreation is delivered, to make sure the contractor [ICRC] is performing this contract as agreed, and to evaluate if this current contract is providing the best delivery of recreation for Idyllwild,” said Brown. “This will help achieve the county’s goal of maintaining the public’s trust since recreation is publicly funded.”

Brown sought answers and reassurances from ICRC. By raising questions and pointing out areas of present non-compliance with the county contract, Brown provided ICRC opportunities and time to address county concerns.

Recently dismissed ICRC director Bob Schraff, had, prior to being voted off the board, admonished the board for not fully complying with the terms of its bylaws. Schraff advocated strict legal compliance with ICRC bylaws as the only way to do business given the organization's greater exposure since taking over the recreation contract, receiving public tax money, and attempting to build a new community center. ICRC is currently reworking its bylaws to address many of the concerns Schraff raised.

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