August 5, 2011; Source: Oakland Tribune | The audit of the now shuttered Associated Community Action Program (ACAP) of Alameda County reveals lots of clearly lousy things such as agency money allegedly spent on the executive director’s massage expenses, home repairs, and undocumented travel.  Certainly the fact that there was a serious structural problem in the organization with the ED’s husband serving as grant manager was a problem as well.  No wonder the audit documents allegations of mismanaged grant funds.

The Oakland Tribune points out the obvious:  “The audit… also confirms what former employees had asserted — a complete lack of oversight by the program’s governing board.” 

But the subtext is the composition of the board: “That board was made up of one county supervisor and one elected official from every city in the county, excluding Berkeley and Oakland.”  As a former public official, this newswire writer likes the idea of public officials serving as full or ex officio members of some nonprofit boards.  But a board of a CAP that is all public officials is a recipe for problems:

  • At a minimum, ACAP’s board should have substantial public–meaning nongovernmental–membership including representation from the low-income populations ACAP was supposed to serve.  An all-municipal governing board leads to the all but unavoidable dynamic of municipal politics having undue inflence over the nonprofit’s programs and priorities.
  • If you’ve watched governmental reps on nonprofit boards, you know that frequently governmental people send substitutes to meetings.  You need the bodies in the chairs, not their stand-ins who are there to report back to the bosses.
  • Municipal government dominance of some CAP boards–and maybe this one too–stems from the early days of the anti-poverty movement when local mayors protested against the creation of community action’s parallel, autonomous access to and use of government funds.  Mayors tried to take over CAPs to avoid the creation of a community-based political force in opposition to local government, but that was long ago.  In ACAP’s case and others, the time of municipal governments’ feeling threatened by the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor is history and shouldn’t be motivating governments to control and dominate what should be autonomous CAPs.

Let’s hope that the ACAP audit leads to corrections that return community action programs and services to the people of Alameda County.  Let’s also hope that local governments come to realize that well-managed autonomous nonprofits are better partners for municipal governments than subservient, controlled, and sometimes corrupted organizations.—Rick Cohen