It's official: District 9 Councilor Ricky Burgess has now done more in three months than his predecessor, Twanda Carlisle, accomplished in a full term. He's pushed hard to reform city policy on take-home vehicles and, this week, found a novel use for his council's district money -- money that led to Carlisle's conviction in a kickback scheme.
In 1996, then-Mayor Tom Murphy gave $1 million in discretionary funds to the nine councilors to be allocated as they saw fit. Over the years they've been allocated to various community groups, agencies and -- in Carlisle's case -- a fur coat and trips to Vegas.
Which points to the problem: Councilors have sole discretion over how money was spent in their districts, which creates opportunities for all kinds of abuse.
Starting soon, however, having a close relationship with District 9 Councilor Ricky Burgess will no longer entitle you to one nickel of his discretionary dollars, because the allocations are no longer left to his discretion. Burgess used the remaining $146,000 in discretionary money for his district to set up the Hope Fund. The fund is a resource for nonprofit agencies in his district, but the money will be administered through the Poise Foundation, the city's only African-American philanthropic foundation.
"The whole point of this is to get rid of any real or perceived politics involved in the awarding of the district's discretionary funds," Burgess said, after the April 15 council meeting where he introduced legislation to set up the fund. "All nonprofits will have the opportunity to apply for the funds, which will be awarded on the strength of their programs ... and not on their political affiliations."
"Neither I nor anyone in my office will be involved in that process."
Burgess will also allocate his annual Community Development Block Grant allocations -- about $75,000 in federal funding -- to the Hope Fund. Over the next three years, Burgess says he hopes to direct about $360,000 to the fund, money he hopes will be supplemented with other government, business and philanthropic resources.
It will be interesting to see if Burgess' decision to relinquish control of his discretionary fund will start a trend on council.
Anyone taking bets?
Speaking of District 9 ...
Twanda Carlisle's friend and co-defendant, Darlene Durham-Miller, was sentenced to two years' probation April 14. Durham-Miller worked as a Carlisle aide and then kicked part of her salary back to the top. Carlisle is currently serving a 12-to-24-month prison sentence after pleading no contest to several public corruption charges late last year.
Key to Carlisle's plea was Durham-Miller's willingness to plea bargain and tell prosecutors where the bodies were buried in exchange for a lighter sentence.
The only co-defendant left to be sentenced is 78-year-old Lee Otto Johnson. Johnson, the housemate of Carlisle's mother, kicked back to Carlisle about half of the $20,800 she paid him for a worthless study on health needs in the district. Johnson was convicted in March of theft, and will be sentenced June 16.