Public safety foundation formation questioned
Concern over efforts to help augment funding for Bloomfield Hills' public safety department through a private foundation were brought to the forefront at the Bloomfield Hills City Commission meeting on Tuesday, June 11, primarily for its lack of transparency and failure to inform city commissioners of its establishment.
That was part of the lesson for a Bloomfield Hills public safety officer who had worked for years to establish a non-profit foundation to benefit his department. After more than three years of work, the Friends of the Bloomfield Hills Foundation was recently revealed to commissioners – all whom were caught off guard by the formation of the foundation.
"We applaud your efforts. We support public safety 100 percent, but we have oversight responsibilities and all of us have concerns about the way this was brought up," said city commissioner Michael Coakley.
Stemming from an idea by Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Officer Christopher Furlong and supported by city resident KC Crain, the foundation was established to provide resources to the department, which includes both police and fire services. The foundation's website says it's "the only organization authorized" to raise funds on behalf of the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department. Questions arose among commissioners as to who authorized the organization.
"We don't mean to be negative, but there are some serious issues... the website says you're the only organization authorized to accept funds on behalf of the department," Coakley said. "Where did that authority come from? I didn't give it. The commission didn't give it. We have to have oversight of this. We have an excellent reputation, and reputation is the easiest thing to lose. Once you lose that, it's really hard to get back. We want to protect the reputation of the officers in the city."
Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Director Noel Clason said Furlong got the idea for the foundation after attending a grant-writing course in 2016. It was there that the instructor told Furlong that city wouldn't qualify for most public safety grants due to its positive financial status.
"He said the way that you do it is as a non-profit," Clason said.
Furlong said it was former public safety director and now city manager David Hendrickson who approached him to attend the grant-writing school. After learning that a non-profit foundation may be a better way to obtain funds for additional equipment or services, Furlong began investigating the process, enlisting the help of a volunteer attorney and others. The foundation received approval from federal tax regulators last year. A website was also created, which Furlong said is still in the process of being updated.
"But we just heard about it a week ago," commissioner Sarah McClure said. "It's great that residents want to support the community and it's great for community relations, but there are other concerns and questions.
"First of all, these foundations tend to be in cash-strapped communities, like Flint, New York City in the 1970s and Los Angeles. In all the years of being on the commission, there have only been two items brought to us (from public safety) that have been turned down... I was taken aback because I was never under the impression that we weren't giving our officers the tools they need to do their jobs."
McClure said she was also concerned that such donations may give the impression that residents who donate to the foundation may receive special treatment from the department.
"We have to make sure it's transparent and ethical," she said. "Some communities have gotten in trouble with these by using funds for club memberships or other things. I'm not saying that would happen here, but we try to be better than that. What is it that we aren't providing that hasn't been communicated to us?"
Clason said funds from a foundation can be used for purposes outside of equipment, which the city wouldn't necessarily have the ability to provide. For instance, a non-profit organization such as the foundation could provide scholarships or support for families in need, such as widows and children of fallen officers if the need arose.
"We do have good equipment and we haven't come to you, but some is aging and becoming antiquated," Clason said. "When Chris came to us, I said, 'let's do it.'
Clason said he believed having a foundation and board in place would allow for donations to be transparent, and ensure some distance between its operation and that of the department.
Furlong said that while residents have always had a way to donate to the department, the thought was that a non-profit vehicle would make the process easier. "Most community members are more comfortable with donating to an organization who have a spelled out mission, rather than going into the city's general fund," he said.
McClure also questioned whether officers are soliciting for donations in the community, which could also create conflicts.
"We don't do that," Hendrickson said. "That's against our general order for the public safety department and we don't do that. Never. In the past, some people solicited for (the city) open house, and it wasn't appropriate. This stops all of that."
Bloomfield Hills City Attorney Derk Beckerleg said he did look into potential conflicts of interest in the foundation and confirmed it does have a conflict of interest policy in place in its founding documents, and he did not identify any conflicts. Still, commissioners said they were concerned about the appearance conflicts, particularly with an officer on the foundation's board, as it benefits that officer's own department.
"These are great points," Hendrickson said. "I believe everyone wants to see something positive. We should probably have a small subcommittee look at this."
The board elected to form a subcommittee consisting of McClure, mayor pro tem William Hosler, Hendrickson, Clason and Furlong to discuss potential issues and processes. That subcommittee is expected to report back to the full commission in July.
Furlong and Crain, who was credited with helping to form the foundation, apologized to the commission for not providing information to members earlier. Memos in the board package note the foundation documents were signed in May 2018.
"I didn't understand when we started the process that we probably could have done a better job working with the city and communicating better," Furlong said. "It was just a group of citizens that want to help our officers. It wasn't supposed to be a contentious thing."