Naperville City Council considers changes to Social Services Grant program, SECA after public debate

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The Naperville City Council may be removing itself from two community grant allotment recommendation processes after a recent public argument at the dais.

Discussions at Tuesday’s meeting centered around Councilwoman Jennifer Bruzan Taylor’s objection to Councilman Benny White’s social services grant recommendation at the Jan. 16 city council meeting.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, a pair of resolutions were brought forward – one for the Social Services Grant program and another for the Special Events and Community Arts Commission (SECA).

Council supports multiple community grant resolutions

The city council is typically tasked with giving recommendations as to how to allot $100,000 of the $500,000 in funds annually distributed to local nonprofits through the city’s Social Services Grant program, which was established in 2005.

Each council member lists their individual recommendations for those funds. Those are then averaged together to determine the final amounts.

During new business, Bruzan Taylor proposed eliminating the portion city council members can allocate at their discretion. She suggested allowing the social services grant committee to allocate the entire $500,000 going forward.

The dais took a straw poll vote, and eight city council members supported the proposal. Councilman Paul Leong was the lone no vote.

Councilwoman Allison Longenbaugh followed up Bruzan Taylor’s proposal with a similar one, but this time for SECA.

She proposed removing the council’s ability to make individual funding recommendations after SECA sends in its final recommendations. Longenbaugh claimed this would “take the politics out of (the process).”

The idea received unanimous support from the city council.

Both proposals will be reviewed by city staff and brought back for a vote at a future city council meeting.

A question of recusal

A conflict about the allotment process first arose at the Jan. 16 council meeting

Councilman Benny White recused himself from the final vote on the allotments for this year’s social services grant program, as his wife, Kim White, is the executive director of the Career & Networking Center (CNC), which was one of the recipients.

Yet White did give a recommendation for the CNC within his own list, among the other allotments he recommended.

Bruzan Taylor requested that White’s recommended allotment for that group be stricken from the final averages, due to his tie to the group. A majority of council agreed with that recommendation, so the final amount allotted to the nonprofit was reduced from $1,750 to $500.

Once White returned the dais after the vote, he called Bruzan Taylor’s motion “totally inappropriate.”

In response, Bruzan Taylor accused White of not answering phone calls while she’s been on the dais.

Broader discussion on when to recuse oneself at Feb. 6 council meeting

The topic was brought up again at the city council’s Feb. 6 meeting.

Kim White spoke during public comment, noting her disappointment at the depletion of the allotment to the CNC, and implying that it was an issue prompted by politics.

“Constructing narratives filled with falsehoods may offer momentary satisfaction to some, but it tarnishes the reputation of an organization,” said White. “These decisions have far-reaching negative consequences, particularly for your constituents, those you have sworn to serve, some of whom are currently navigating the job search process.”

Later on the dais, Councilman Benny White touched on the issue, saying that the council is encouraged to reach out to city staff before meetings with any objections or concerns they may have with a fellow member. 

He said he was “perplexed” as to why that hadn’t been done by Bruzan Taylor before the Jan. 16 meeting.

“It appears that attempt was made to discredit or embarrass me,” said White. “But doing that, disregarding the potential negative repercussions on the Career and Networking Center.”

He noted that the organization has an important mission that relies heavily on grants.

“I sincerely hope that the recent discussion doesn’t adversely affect their support as any impact on them directly hampers our community’s jobseekers,” White added.

Bruzan Taylor stressed that her problem with White’s allocation was his wife’s role with the CNC.

“(You) may not like how I handle this matter, but that does not change the original wrong that a councilperson tried to allocate taxpayer money in a way that financially enriches his household,” said Bruzan Taylor. “It’s a hard stop. It’s much different than someone being an unpaid volunteer.

White rebutted Bruzan Taylor’s statement, claiming there was “nothing nefarious” with the grant to his wife’s organization.

“The grants are written for specific reasons, not to enhance my household income,” said White. “It says that within the grant.”

Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger chimed in with some history on the issue from a previous dais.

“(The former) Mayor Chirico, prior to discussions on the issue, acknowledged the fact that nearly every council member had a connection with a, one not-for-profit, if not more, and suggested that you know, ‘hey, if everybody recused for every single not-for-profit allocation, that there would, may be some cases where we wouldn’t even have the votes to make the allocation,” said Krieger.

According to Naperville Community Grants Coordinator Miranda L. Barfuss, staff salaries are a permissible expense under progam guidelines.

The CNC sought funds from the social services grant committee for an initiative called “Empower the Job Seeker”

The program involves providing career coaching services, an expansion of their resource database, and partnerships with area businesses.

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