Council members’ charitable donations vary widely

Berkeley had a float in San Francisco’s Pride Parade in June, paid for, in part, by a $700 donation from Kriss Worthington. Photo: Cathy Cade

By Hannah Long and Natalie Orenstein

During the past four years, city council members have used money from their city budgets to donate $99,999 to various charities, such as the Juneteenth Festival, UC Berkeley student associations, local business groups, and non-profit arts and community organizations, according to public records.

These donations range from $100 to a few thousand dollars, and, while some city council members are big spenders when it comes to supporting community organizations, others choose to use their money elsewhere.

District 7’s Kriss Worthington is consistently the most liberal with his donations. According to public records, he donated $7,807 to community organizations in the 2012 fiscal year. His $4,332 donation to the Northside Merchants’ Association to buy Christmas decorations was more than the total donations of any other council member in 2012. Other large contributions include $1,000 to Youth Spirit Artworks and $700 to San Francisco LGBT Pride, where Berkeley had its first parade float this year.

City Councilmembers can use their annual budgets to make charitable donations. Some donate less than $1,000 a year, some much donate much more. Chart: Natalie Orenstein

“I try to support small groups and projects that are struggling or might not happen,” said Worthington. “If certain groups don’t get support early on in the process, they might not survive or thrive.” He says that his donations have helped to launch various projects, including the Pride parade float. They helped the Northside Merchants’ Association buy Christmas lights rather than continue to rent them.

On the other end of the spending spectrum, District 5’s Laurie Capitelli only donated $850 to community agencies in fiscal 2012. He said that while he occasionally gives $100 or $200 to an organization in his district, he hesitates to donate at all.

“I have a philosophical problem with the whole process,” said Capitelli. “It’s a little like patronage. We have a finite amount that we’re allotted, and my first priority is constituent services. My other priority is that I believe I should pay a reasonable wage to the people who work in my office.”

City council members get about $64,000 a year to spend on office staff and other expenses, including donations. (The city pays another $29,000 in benefits). While most council members have one full-time paid staff member, Capitelli pays an additional part-time aid.

Worthington said that the numbers don’t tell the whole story, and he believes it’s possible to support community agencies while also maintaining adequate staffing.

“I have one paid staff member but he supervises many others. A lot of the work in my office is done by senior citizen volunteers and student interns,” he said. “They’re learning things, but they’re expected to really get work done, make policy, make things happen. To me, a much bigger issue than giving $100 here and there is how many hours each office is open a day. I would argue that I have a cost-effective office.”

Like Capitelli, Mayor Tom Bates expressed discomfort with the idea of council members using their budgets to donate to local organizations.

“I think smaller contributions to groups, such as an LGBTQ group, aren’t appropriate,” Bates said. “It shouldn’t be a public auction. It becomes political.”

While Bates has donated a high total of $6,250 this year (second only to Worthington), he says that he only supports large citywide initiatives and avoids interest groups and smaller organizations. This year, his contributions included $3,500 to a mural project on Cedar Street and $800 to Earth Island Institute’s utility box artwork initiative.

Bates also says that he only spends when he thinks a donation will benefit the community at large. This explains the large fluctuations in his donations from year to year, which totaled only $950 in the 2010 fiscal year, he said.

The mayor’s budget was $355,000 for fiscal 2012. (The city kicked in another $190,000 in benefits). While Bates does not collect a salary from the city, he has four full-time aides.

Spending by the other council members also varies widely. In fiscal 2012, Max Anderson donated $3,800, the second most, with Jesse Arreguín closely following with $3,574. Altogether, the eight council members and Mayor Bates have donated a total of $29,406 to community agencies this year. This is $430 more than the $28,976 donated last year.

Natalie Orenstein and Hannah Long worked as journalist interns at Berkeleyside this summer. 

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Dannyboy

    And, yet, Berkeley is facing a $12,000,000 budget deficit in 2012 and a projected deficit of $13,000,000 for 2013.  This is completely unacceptable.

  • The Sharkey

    Why are City funds being spent on donations when we’re so strapped for cash that they’re trying to float a bond to pay for pothole repair?!?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Seems like a case of “spend it or lose it” accounting common to bureaucracies.  If the council members could run their offices for less than $64K/year (+$29K additional in benefits), the budget would/should be trimmed to that figure.  So they give the excess away in these patronage plays.  

    Corporations do this too, but are held accountable for expenses in their financial statements.  The city offices should be at least as accountable, especially in light of the new bond measures they’ve teed up.

  • Bill

    Regardless of what I may think about any one of these events or charities I don’t think it’s proper for our council or mayor to spend city funds on these things.  Any unspent balances should be returned to the city treasury.

  • Guest

     Held accountable in what way?

  • Guest®

    The contributions to special interest groups are already inappropriate, as Mayor Bates so aptly pointed out, but contributions to OUT-OF-TOWN special interest groups???  Does San Francisco not have its own city budget?  That $700.00 Kriss Worthington donated to SF Pride could have fixed a pothole.  Members of the Berkeley LGBTQBBQ community drive cars and ride bikes too, you know.

    Also, the last thing this town need is more murals, or more sensitive floral motifs on the utility boxes.  At least our utility boxes appear to have been painted by actual artists, unlike the ones in Oakland, which have a kind of Children of the Corn vibe.  But why the hell are we paying for this?  Any one who runs for city council on a “plain walls, neutral colors” ticket has my vote.

  • Tzitzimi

    Ummm. Wait a minute. this is money paid in taxes that these guys are “donating”.  In other words, it is OUR money. I think this is reprehensible. Let us donate to our own choice of deserving causes, not to some bozo politicos!

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Be able to articulate why these are appropriate expenditures and, if not convincing, return the funds back to the city budget.  

    I had a ninety dollar sidewalk repair deferred for 18 months because the city ran out of funds.  I’m not happy to learn that funds that could have covered that are instead going to patronage projects.

  • guest

    These monies are definitely being used to buy votes.  

  • Charles_Siegel

    The last thing this city needs is art.  Anyone who runs on the platform of making the city blander and uglier has my vote. 

    They should also get rid of all those vine-covered brown-shingle houses and replace them with stucco boxes painted gray.

  • Guest®

    If you want to look at gigantic vegetables and earthworms rendered in exceptionally loud colors every day, that’s what interior walls are for.  Go wild.

  • councilmaven

    The Council D-13 account is one more tool in the patronage toolkit that buys, votes, loyalty, and electoral help.  Other patronage tools are commission appointments, sweetheart labor deals, proclamations in honor of, and  special allocations from the General Fund.  Without an overall plan, budgetary discipline, and a consensus set of priorities to pay down our $1.2 Billion in unfunded obligations, substantial moneys will be spent on patronage items that may be nice enough but of relatively low priority.   We could have kept the Willard Pool open with the app. $90 Thousand annually allocated to the Council D-13 slush funds.

  • sameoldsameold

     Exactly, and which one of the these nonprofits do charitable work? of the events and nonprofits listed none are charities.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    [Worthington's] $4,332 donation to the Northside Merchants’ Association to buy Christmas decorations was more than the total donations of any other council member in 2012.

    Taxpayer money for Christmas decorations?  So much for separation of church and state!  

  • The Sharkey

    With all the starving artists in the Bay Area, it should be easy to find artists who are willing to paint utility boxes for free, just for the exposure.

  • Guest®

    That’s the whole problem in a nutshell.  If your name isn’t Diego Rivera, please leave blank public spaces alone.

  • David D.

    The title of this article is misleading, and Berkeleyside should do a better job with its editing. A more accurate title would be:

    “Council members’ patronage donations vary widely”

    Hats off to Laurie Capitelli and shame on Kriss Worthington.

  • Guest®

     They were probably listed as “Winter Festival Decorations.”

  • The Sharkey

    Look at how quickly blank spaces are “decorated” by “street artists” around Berkeley.

    I’d rather see artists go through an application process and get their works approved than see more tagging.

  • Lurkyloo

    Oh YAWN.
    If it was Bates, you would be jumping up and down at “improvement” to the “business district”.
    Honestly, you people are SO predictable.

  • Charles_Siegel

    When Bside had an article about painting utility boxes, all the comments were favorable.  http://www.berkeleyside.com/2011/06/22/city-project-will-transform-utility-boxes-with-vibrant-art/#disqus_thread

    When the exact same project is tied to the name of a politician, all the haters come to comment.