Sept. 15 2010 10:18 AM

Supervisors need to put a leash on those slush puppies.

Bill Horn
San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn put his anti-abortion agenda above his responsibility to taxpayers when he sponsored grants to the La Mesa-based organization Life Perspectives.

We’re not going to rehash all the reasons we think Horn should be defeated on Election Day in November—at least not right now. This isn’t about Horn. It’s about wasted resources. Horn’s actions highlight the need for further reforms to the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, the discretionary grant scheme (cough—slush funds—cough) that allows each supervisor to spread up to $2 million across the county each year.

Life Perspectives would have used the $20,000 county grant for its annual Life Walk event, a fund-raiser for the group’s “Whole Life Curriculum” program, a collection of Bible-based, pro-life, abstinence-only lesson plans for K-12 private-school students. The grant violated provisions in the California Constitution that bar public funding for religious activities, not to mention the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Once CityBeat revealed the religious nature of the program, the county put a stop to it.

But the grant also violated the spirit of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, which is supposed to help nonprofit organizations improve local communities through onetime capital investments. This year’s grant would have been the third in a row Horn sponsored for Life Walk. Life Perspectives has also said that the work funded by the Life Walk is not exclusively local and the programs benefit schools outside the state.

The problem with the county paying for fund-raising events is the lack of accountability. When the county funds capital purchases, such as a new van for a disabled-services provider, auditors can examine receipts to ensure such a van was actually bought. With a fund-raiser, the county can only inspect receipts for snacks, posters, T-shirts and other promotional materials, but not how the group used the money raised at the event—except through tax returns.

Life Perspectives did not provide the county with IRS filings for 2008 or 2009. The group had said some of the money would go toward secular educational materials for public schools, but CityBeat found no evidence to support the claim. The group would not provide us with any names of public schools it served in 2009 with Life Walk funds.

Supervisors Greg Cox and Dianne Jacob have proposed new reform measures that would prevent another Life Walk debacle. The proposal, scheduled for a hearing on Sept. 28, would change county policy so the grants “shall not be used for food, beverage, galas, fundraisers, transportation, parking, hotel expenses, personnel costs or anything other than the one-time purchase of equipment, materials, goods, supplies or contracted professional services that increase the quality of life in neighborhoods.”

We support the reforms, but we also would like the county to do the due diligence before approving these grants. In defending the Life Perspectives grant, Horn argued that county staff didn’t identify a problem, the public didn’t speak out during the June 29 hearing and the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved it. However, the sponsoring supervisor is trusted to vet the grants, and staff only looks over the supervisor’s summary and the group’s application. Horn’s office either ignored its duty or helped Life Perspectives file a misleading application that contained no mention of the group’s religious nature. That in itself is worth an independent investigation.

It does seem that the County Counsel’s office has stepped up its game; it’s already caught one grant—$2,500 for Pastors on Point’s gospel and prayer-palooza, “Praise Fest.” Although the board approved the grant, county attorneys took a second look after the Life Perspectives story broke and cancelled it.

Lest readers conclude that CityBeat has a grudge against the Christian right, we should emphasize that Cox and Jacob’s reforms would also impact groups including the Helen Woodward Animal Center, San Diego Coastkeeper and the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Those groups will just have to use county money for verifiable services and rely on private donors for fund-raiser overhead.

That’s what happened with Life Perspectives, after all. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa’s charity foundation was among the groups that kicked in money for Life Walk after the county cancelled the check. As the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and government Reform, Issa would be the first to agree that private citizens and organizations have a right to waste money in whatever way they want—the government does not.

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