A pair of ethics complaints have been filed against Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilman Steve Salvatori over sending taxpayer money initally allocated for a council assistant to hand-picked community groups instead.
The first, filed by former Council President Joe Shogan, accuses Salvatori of violating conflict of interest prohibitions by failing to disclose personal ties to one of the groups, a business startup booster called Spokane Angel Alliance. The second was filed by former Councilman Steve Eugster, who contends all of Salvatori’s redirected spending was improper and constitutes illegal gifts of public funds.
Both include Stuckart in their complaints because he signed off on the deals.
Stuckart and Salvatori dispute any suggestion of impropriety, saying they followed the process outlined by the city’s legal and finance departments.
But it will be the city’s Ethics Committee, which was created during Shogan’s tenure, that has final say. The committee meets quarterly but can schedule additional meetings to consider complaints. Eugster’s complaint was filed Tuesday, while Shogan’s was received last week.
“This isn’t right,” Shogan said Tuesday of the way the money was spent. “They could have dealt with this by having a (council) vote on it after Salvatori discloses his connection.”
The clash is part of an ongoing conflict rooted in last year’s heated debate over providing each council member with their own paid, full-time assistant. Salvatori was among those who unsuccessfully opposed the increased expenditure, but struck a deal with Stuckart to go without a city-provided assistant and instead spend that portion of the allocation on various community groups of his choosing.
About $15,000 was used to increase the number of nights that Spokane’s homeless warming shelters would be open during winter months, $20,000 went to the University District Development Association, $5,000 to the Spokane Police Department’s youth outreach program, $5,000 to the West Central Community Center and $5,000 to the Angel Alliance.
Salvatori is a board member with the alliance, which seeks to connect promising startup companies with accredited investors. Shogan said the connection wasn’t properly disclosed to the council, and that Stuckart enabled the conflict of interest to persist by approving the improper expenditure.
Under the city’s ethics code, council members are prohibited from using their positions to benefit from city spending on endeavors they hold a financial or other interest in, and requires they formally disclose even just a “remote interest” in potential contracts before a council vote is taken.
Salvatori bristles at the suggestion he might stand to benefit from the expenditure.
“I followed every process I was given,” he said, noting that a year earlier he’d also turned down what was then a part-time assistant and divvied up the allocation among the other council members to spend as they wanted without anyone objecting. “If the process needs to change, then we can look at that.”
Stuckart also defends the spending, saying all of the expenditures “were legally vetted.”
“This has nothing to do with Steve Salvatori,” Stuckart said. “He suggested it but I signed off on it.”
Stuckart said the City Council approved all of the redirected spending with public votes just as it does all city spending each week.
The $5,000 payment to the Angel Alliance was described in contract paperwork as giving the city official sponsorship status within the group, though neither the city’s logo nor any mention of its 2014 sponsorship status was included on the group’s website where several “premier sponsors” are showcased. However, the city’s logo does appear elsewhere on the site among a list of program sponsors. Among the showcased premier sponsors is Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review newspaper.
Although he contends all of the redirected spending followed proper existing procedure, Stuckart is preparing to propose new rules for next year’s budget that would prohibit the kind of spending changes he and Salvatori made in this year’s budget. The proposal is expected to be considered next month.