City Council discretionary spending raises questions | Keeping Up With the Council

City Council discretionary spending raises questions

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For the past two weeks, Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris has taken to Pittsburgh City Council's televised weekly meetings to voice frustration over unpaid invoices. The invoices in question are ones she submitted for donations to community groups. 

In a 20-minute tirade on Sept. 30, Harris accused Council President Bruce Kraus, who is responsible for signing the invoices, of withholding the donations for political reasons.

"The expenditures come to me every Monday, and I must sign off on them so what I want to make sure is that the funds are being used appropriately," says Kraus. "Where I draw the line is in receiving consideration for a donation. That should really be done with campaign money. So I have for the last two years worked with council members about what the rules are and what I am comfortable signing.”

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Kraus is requesting a letter from each group saying that Councilor Harris will not receive consideration, such as having her name included on promotional materials, for her donations to these organizations. 

“She has chosen a very reckless public course of action. She believes she can bully me into some kind of retreat," says Kraus. "I won't sign it because its not right and its exactly why the system of checks and balances exists. I am supposed to use my discretion.”

Harris’ latest gripe regards three invoices for $100 each to the Achieving Greatness Inc., Women’s Walk for Peace and the Promise group. Two weeks ago the issue was also raised by Harris regarding a $500 donation for another community group.

"I think this is ridiculous. I don’t think we should have to give our life’s history to the president or kiss his butt to be able to hand out a donation to community organizations," Harris said. "I don’t ask anything in return from these organizations."
 
The funds would come from the $8,000 discretionary fund that each council office receives. At the meeting Harris said other councilors do not have their use of these funds as closely monitored, and she believes she is being singled out. 

"The mayor and other council members have their names on things,” Harris said. "I can never remember a council like this. I’ll get the president these letters, but I think this needs to stop or let’s get the mayor’s name off of everything, let’s get every council member’s name off everything." 

When City Controller Michael Lamb’s office audited city council's discretionary spending in May 2014, he questioned discretionary funds that were donated to parades in return for self-promotion.

"When we audited them, we always do question any spending that is geared toward self-promotion as opposed to community benefit," says Lamb. "It's public money. It should be spent for public purposes, but sometimes it's not always easy to be sure if it's for the public good or public promotion."

Despite his own questions about discretionary spending, he says he's never heard of councilors being required to prove discretionary funds aren't being used for self-promotion.
 
“I've never heard of that being the standard for anyone else. I know that we didn't suggest changing their rules," says Lamb. "We have concerns with all of their discretionary spending, and they all have had spending that we've questioned. In this case they seem to be holding Darlene to a higher standard." 


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