Monterey Park Council Divided On Donation Issue
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
Discussion at the most recent Monterey Park City Council meeting quickly grew heated as council members took opposite sides on whether it is appropriate for elected officials to make personal donations during city functions.
“This isn’t in any way attacking the generosity of any councilmembers, including the mayor,” said Councilman Mitchell Ing who requested the council discuss the matter. “It’s just very awkward using that time to promote your own personal donations,” he said, referring to Mayor Anthony Wong who at the March 18 council presentations meeting promised to donate his mayoral salary to local organizations, then proceeded to present an organization with checks attached to Certificates of Recognition from the city.
Ing said he had been told that presenting personal checks during city council meetings, which are broadcast to residents on the city’s cable channel, constitutes an unpermitted use of city staff time and resources to highlight personal activities.
“The question is, if it was said no in the past and you are presenting your personal donations before the camera, [using] staff time, is that similar to a misappropriation of funds,” Ing asked the city attorney, reiterating that his intention was not to question the mayor’s generosity but to seek clarity.
“I just want to make sure we get this correct, I don’t want this to be vague and double standard.”
“I don’t believe that is unlawful under any law,” responded City Attorney Mark Hensley, who added that he was not present when the presentations took place and that he, has never advised the council on the issue.
Hensley’s response did not sit well with Ing, who said the city attorney’s explanation does not mesh with what he was told by the city manager and former staff who he claims told him “no, you can’t do it.”
A city official should not be allowed to do such a thing, Ing said, implying that doing so is an attempt to curry favor with voters at the city’s expense.
Hensley said council members could adopt a policy to prohibit personal donations during city events.
Obviously offended, Wong said his actions were “inspired by previous councilmembers,” including Ing, who have donated to various community organizations over the years. “Besides that, I have no other purpose,” he said.
Councilwoman Teresa Real Sebastian, who served as mayor prior to Wong, said she too had been told she couldn’t use city events, staff or resources to promote her activities in the city. She said she was specifically told that her name and title could not appear in the city funded Cascades newsletter when she wanted to advertise her monthly walks with the mayor or park cleanups.
“We have to apply these laws the same way to each one of us or else it really isn’t fair,” she said, clearly upset. “Why was I told one thing and yet it’s permissible to another councilmember.”
According to Hensley, written material sent to over 200 residents that requires $50 or more in city funds is not allowed, with the exception of a letter on city letterhead.
However, he added it is legal for the council to put their personal city-related activities on the city’s website. “Things in print are the kind of the things that could get the council in trouble.”
Although Real Sebastian agreed that council member activities, such as the Mayor’s Town Hall taking place today, should be advertised, she drew the line at publicizing personal donations during meetings.
Real Sebastian demanded that a staff report be conducted and questioned whether the city should ask for an opinion from the FPPC or district attorney’s office, prompting smiles from Wong and Mayor Pro Tem Hans Liang
“Mayor I see that you’re kind of laughing at my questions, as you are too mister mayor pro tem,” she responded, clearly frustrated. “The reason I’m asking these questions is…to not only protect you, but to protect all of us,” she said.
“I’m not laughing at you, don’t misunderstand me,” responded Wong chuckling.
“These are my comments and I’m pretty serious about it” she interrupted. “If it’s something that is permissible I want to make sure we don’t get in trouble … You [Hensley] could give us your legal opinion but if the D.A. comes after us your legal opinion will only carry so much.”
“If you don’t like the perception or don’t like the way it looks you can impose a policy against that,” Hensley reiterated.
Liang questioned why the issue was coming up in the first place.
“I personally don’t see a problem with this,” he said defending the practice. “I can’t see how [presenting donation checks] could be a bad thing.”
Liang and Ing continued to banter the issue back and forth until Real Sebastian suggested that all personal donations be made after the presentation of certificates from the city, Although no policy was officially adopted, the council ultimately reached a general consensus to follow her suggestion.
“If that’s what you want, I’ll do it,” said the mayor.
Still not happy and not quite ready to let the topic drop, Ing again called the practice awkward and uncomfortable for council members not presenting checks, and for the groups not receiving a donation.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable or awkward,” responded Liang.
“Why not do it at the their event, why do it here at this forum?” Ing continued to push Wong, but not getting a direct answer.
“I was raised that when you donate, you do it to give, not for the recognition,” said Real Sebastian. And “I will continue to give privately.”
April 10, 2014 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.