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Where I Stand: Local nonprofits need public oversight

By Jon Kennedy

Interim Portola City Manager

Why aren’t some non-profit / Non-Governmental Agencies (NGOs) subject to the same transparency laws as local government?  Should some non-profits / NGOs be subject to the Brown Act and the Public Records Act? I think so.

Many non-profits are affiliated with churches, alumni associations and boys’ and girls’ clubs, but many serve the public just as local government does/should. There are benefits to contracting out to capable non-profit organizations, but that could come at a transparency cost to the taxpayer. The process of delivering services to the public can be more streamlined when cutting out government bureaucracy, however, once that check gets cut from government (taxpayer funds) to the non-profit, there’s little oversight, and nearly zero transparency.

Let me make myself clear though, just because there’s essentially no public oversight, that doesn’t necessarily mean bad things are happening. Usually, the boards of these organizations are mindful and understand the mission. Locally, we have the Plumas Crisis Intervention Resource Center (PCIRC), Plumas Rural Services (PRS), Sierra Butte Tail Stewardship (SBTS), Plumas Corp, and others. A big part of their revenue source comes from taxpayer funded, state and federal grants, and contributions from local city and county government.

Local government agencies are subject to the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act. This means they must conduct their meetings in the open, with strict agenda posting timelines. They are also subject to public records requests, which means nearly every document they have needs to be made available to the public, with a few legal exceptions. Local government not only includes cities and counties, but it can include fire departments, water and sewer districts, community services districts, etc. Some of these smaller agencies have budgets that don’t even reach 50k per year, and some of the non-profits run in the millions, mostly funded through some taxpayer conduit.

Bad things do happen. Recently the Bucks Lake Volunteer Fire Department had an alleged $300,000 embezzlement issue surface. Most Fire Districts in the county/state are special districts, governed by elected board members, with rules to follow. Bucks Lake FD used its non-profit status to qualify for funds that were intended to serve the needs of the fire department. This example is a little different than non-profits like PCIRC, for instance. PCIRC predominantly serves the same community members as the County Health & Human Services does. To me, PCIRC is an essential service organization, mainly funded by the taxpayer, and they essentially have no public oversight.

My suggestion, the same suggestion I had when I was a member of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, is that legislation needs to be enacted that requires certain non-profits that receive “X” amount of dollars or percentage of their total budget from a government source, to be subject to the same transparency laws local government is required to comply with. If this can’t happen at the state or federal level, it definitely can happen locally. As a condition of funding, local government can require these agencies to follow the same rules, or they don’t receive the funds.

There are a lot of moving parts to this suggestion, but it has to start somewhere.

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