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.
“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.
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