The Memphis City Council plans to hire an independent auditor to look at its own grant program and investigate how the funds were spent over the past three fiscal years.
The move could bring transparency to how the City Council spends between $2 and $2.5 million every year. This year, it is more than $3 million. Each councilmember typically directs about 1/13th of the money to local nonprofits through a program that is often seen as political patronage.
The decision to hire an auditor comes after one member of the City Council, Michalyn Easter-Thomas, did not disclose a personal interest when the City Council voted on allocating thousands in grant dollars to the nonprofit where her husband ran fundraising — Communities in Schools of Memphis.
She also did not disclose the connection before the City Council voted to allocate $500,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to Communities in Schools last fall.
Easter-Thomas acknowledged questions from The Commercial Appeal but did not return a request for comment Monday.
Darren Thomas II, Easter-Thomas’ husband, worked as director of development for Communities in Schools of Memphis, according to its website. He left about a month ago, according to a post on his LinkedIn page.
He is listed as the applicant for the organization in city documents that detail grant funding received by the city. In this year’s round of funding, Communities in Schools received $32,000 from the city, including $20,500 from Easter-Thomas’ roughly $200,000 bucket of funding.
Communities in Schools of Memphis works to lower dropout rates in schools by offering a range of social service supports to kids and families. It is part of a broader network of similar organizations.
Throughout the past several years, it was well-known among councilmembers that Darren Thomas II was Easter-Thomas’ husband. Another councilmember, Jeff Warren, proposed the $500,000 in ARPA funding.
Allan Wade, the city council‘s retained attorney, said the lack of disclosure could represent a conflict of interest.
“It could be. It would depend on the facts and circumstances,” Wade said.
The city’s ethics ordinance outlines a duty for an elected official — or any officer of the city — to disclose a personal interest before a vote.
“An officer with the responsibility to vote on a measure shall disclose during the meeting at which the vote takes place, before the vote and so it appears in the minutes, any personal interest that affects or that would lead a reasonable person to infer that it affects the officer’s vote on the measure. In addition, the officer may recuse himself from voting on the measure,” the city’s ethics ordinance says.
It defines a personal interest to include, “Any such financial, ownership, or employment interest of the officer’s or employee’s spouse, parent(s), stepparent(s), grandparent(s), sibling(s), child(ren), or stepchild(ren).”
Council moves to hire independent auditor
The City Council passed a resolution to audit the grant program at its last meeting, Oct. 18. The resolution did not appear on the agenda until shortly before the vote. No one detailed why such a resolution had just appeared out of thin air.
The resolution says that it is of “paramount importance” the City Council “assure citizens that their tax dollars are being spent responsibly,” and “we do not take lightly the responsibility to fulfill the duties of this office in a manner that is ethical…”
Council Chairman Martavius Jones and Councilman JB Smiley, Jr., the City Council’s vice chair, introduced the resolution after the City Council met for more than an hour with its attorney, Wade, in a private attorney-client meeting. City Attorney Jennifer Sink also attended the meeting.
A reporter for The Commercial Appeal sat outside the City Council’s committee room, which has glass windows, throughout most of the meeting. Wade said in an interview Sunday evening he suggested the City Council audit its grant program. He did not say when he made the suggestion but noted the council’s grant program did have to follow guidelines from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury.
“As a matter of course, I advise the [City Council] from time-to-time that because you do have those guidelines, we should probably make sure there’s nothing going on,” Wade said.
Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @samhardiman.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: grant program after personal interest not disclosed” class=”link “>Memphis City Council to audit grant program after personal interest not disclosed
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