Supervisor Dave Roberts presents San Diego Zoo Global Chairman Rick Gulley with a $7,000 county grant. A proposed amendment would limit supervisors to using these regular-sized checks during public presentations. July 25, 2014. Photo by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo Global

San Diego County supervisors are scheduled to vote next week on restricting gifts and personal recognition from organizations that receive grants through a $10 million fund that supervisors can essentially spend in any way they wish.

The action will come three weeks after inewsource raised questions about those grants and their grateful recipients.

The newest changes to the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program are proposed by Supervisors Greg Cox and Dave Roberts.

They include cracking down on giving thanks to supervisors on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. One proposed change would ban supervisors from presenting giant-sized checks that make for classic photo opportunities.

This won’t be the first time the Board of Supervisors tightens the rules governing grants from the program, which allows each supervisor to give away $2 million a year to causes he or she deems worthy. The causes have included nonprofits and the county itself, according to an analysis of 16 years of grants by inewsource.

The first changes to the program in 2010 were in response to a grand jury investigation. Grand jurors were concerned about influence peddling so the board outlawed personal recognition of individual supervisors.

Following those changes, grant recipients who wanted to express their gratitude could only thank the San Diego County government, not individual supervisors.

Supervisors, for their part, were also no longer allowed to accept gifts from grant recipients. An inewsource investigation, however, found that those rules were only loosely enforced.

Cox coauthored the 2010 overhaul of the program’s rules. Roberts led the push to restore the program to $2 million this year after budget cuts had halved it to $1 million a year.

By extending the written recognition ban to social media, Roberts hopes to clarify the rules, as well as the source of county grant money.

Proposed grant program amendments

“We want to make sure that everybody is clear that this is county funding, that it’s not one individual supervisor funding,” Roberts said.

Roberts apologized in July after U-T San Diego reported that he had retweeted a YMCA tweet thanking him for an NRP grant.

According to Roberts, the ban on large checks came up during talks he and Cox had with community organizations about ways to improve the grant-giving program.

“I personally have not done the large check, but it was just one of the things that had come forward and was put into the recommendation that is now in the final board letter,” Roberts said.

Pamela O’Neil, Cox’s chief of staff, said the big check ban is part of an effort to make sure there could be no “grandstanding” with grant money.

Large checks are a common sight in politicians’ photo galleries. Supervisors will now be limited to giving regular-sized checks when publicly awarding NRP money.

The proposed amendments will also update the ban on gifts to reflect changes in California’s Fair Political Practices Commission reporting requirements.

Supervisors won’t be allowed to travel with organizations that receive the county grants, which is already part of FPPC rules. They will also be required to report gifts using the tickets and ceremonial roles disclosure form.

The county will also keep grant applications for three years, rather than the two normally required.

The proposed amendments do loosen one restriction. Currently, grant recipients are banned from using the county money to pay for any food or drinks. Changes will now allow organizations to purchase food for services such as food banks and animal shelters.

O’Neil said the original ban was intended to make sure supervisors “can’t eat shrimp at the gala off the taxpayers’ money.” But now, she said, it can be used to buy food for the needy.

The Neighborhood Reinvestment Program is the highest profile of San Diego County’s grant funds, but it’s not the only one. The Community Enhancement Program uses money from the county’s hotel room tax for cultural activities and economic developments.

inewsource reported recently that the enhancement program doesn’t have many of the rules the reinvestment program does. With the enhancement program, grant recipients are allowed to thank individual supervisors in writing or give them gifts.

O’Neil said Cox isn’t considering any amendments to that program because the two grant funds have different purposes. While the reinvestment program is aimed at benefiting the community, the enhancement program is aimed at economic development through tourism.

“The purpose of the community enhancement money is to take tourist dollars for things that attract more tourist dollars,” O’Neil said.

Roberts said that when he came into office he instituted several changes to how his office allocates the enhancement program funds. That included setting up a review committee and publicizing the grant application on his website. Like Cox, he said he’s not considering proposing any changes to the program.

“We’ll look at it if it’s needed for the Community Enhancement Program,” Roberts said. “We have not heard of any issues with that program like we did with the NRP.”

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.

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