As much as it is smart for nonprofits to steer clear of partisan political rivalries, it is also probably good practice for local politicians to steer clear of rivalries between competing community-based nonprofits and maintain an arms-length relationship with charities in their communities. In short, be supportive, but don’t get too cozy. Certainly, don’t let your sentiments lead you into violating the law, as they may have done in this story from Roanoke, a city of some 100,000 people in the southwest part of Virginia.
The Roanoke Times reports that “City Councilman John Garland acknowledged he might have run afoul of the spirit of the city charter, if not the letter of it, by contacting city staff directly with concerns about the legitimacy of a local nonprofit.”
The paper says that last year, Garland questioned whether the Hope Center, a small anti-poverty nonprofit run by the councilman’s one-time political allies, was in compliance with all city regulations. He directly contacted the city’s code enforcement staff and finance director. That “helped trigger a full review of the Hope Center’s…building in August by a range of city inspectors. The review identified the lack of a certificate of occupancy as the center’s only issue.”
Ironically, Garland said that he had used his influence as a councilman to hold code inspectors at bay from the Hope Center in the past. The mayor and council members are barred by law from giving orders to subordinates of the city manager.
Garland said he didn’t “give any orders,” but admitted that an inquiry to a rank-and-file city employee by a city council member would be perceived as an order by the employee. That situation is reminiscent of current controversies surrounding President Trump’s conversations regarding the Russia investigation with now-fired FBI Director James Comey.
Garland, at least, told the Times that “the lesson is one he’s already learned and embraced…If I do something I’m not supposed to do, I learn from that, I correct it, I say I’m sorry and I move on.”