Advisory board members want voice, accountability on drug & alcohol prevention funds

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Members of an advisory board pressed Friday for more input, transparency and measurable outcomes within a process slated to appropriate $843,000 this year from the city’s special alcohol tax revenue.

The Special Alcohol Fund Advisory Board (SAFAB) met Friday to discuss a memo by city staff declaring legal the appropriation of the city’s special alcohol tax toward the city’s new Housing Initiatives Division (HID). The meeting’s main topic of discussion pivoted to the board’s process and purpose.

Daniel B. Smith told fellow board members and Brandon McGuire, assistant city manager, the “way the process is being carried out doesn’t necessarily match with the way it’s written down and supposed to go forward.”

The SAFAB previously participated in a recommendation and review process to the city commission to award the funds, as outlined by a city ordinance. In 2022, $800,000 of the fund was redirected from a process known as outside agency funding toward the HID to support programs and services for those experiencing homelessness and addiction.

Smith said those receiving funds had likely made “huge impacts” but urged the city to either update the ordinance or let the board fulfill its duties. He cited the city’s invitation to a forum Jan. 5 for landlords to engage in the consideration of an ordinance aimed at reducing housing discrimination.

“So it’s just interesting to me that the city is going out of their way to personally invite people who don’t even live in our community, who see housing as an investment for them to make money, to give their input on new things that we could be doing to help folks who are struggling to be housed,” Smith said.

He called it “a real disconnect.”

“When we’re specifically tasked, our duty is to give input, and we’re not being given that opportunity. It just seems very striking that people who are profiting off of the suffering of Lawrence residents are actively being invited to come and speak at length to the city commission, and we don’t even get a say on how the special alcohol funds are allocated,” Smith said.

Other board members, including Vice Chair Mandy Enfield, have voiced concerns about the change and called for more transparency in the process since 2021.

“If there is still an opportunity for us to get any input prior to the allocation of funds next year, I feel like it’s worth considering,” Smith said.

Rather than applying for and receiving grants, organizations provide services by procurement contracts, McGuire said.

“It may not be transparent in the way that the public or the advisory board is discussing it in a public forum and making decisions about it,” McGuire said. “But our procurement processes do have to meet some pretty stringent expectations for transparency.”

A spreadsheet by city staff showed appropriations for the Care Center, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Lawrence Community Shelter and the Willow Domestic Domestic Violence Center in addition to the Winter Emergency Shelter and the city’s North Lawrence support site for people who are unhoused.

Board members, including Kim Johnson and Dorothy Hoyt-Reed, asked about the follow-up process and how the city measures the outcomes of those contracts.

“Where is a graph showing the outcomes of the money allocated to an agency to measure?” Johnson asked. “That’s what we want.”

Danelle Walters, housing initiatives manager, told the board the contracts would be reviewed in February and reports shared with the city commission and the SAFAB.

Rather than awarding grants and receiving a single annual report, city staff was trying to assess the work throughout the year.

“We’re trying to look at this issue and look at what we’re doing here holistically, and how it impacts the entire system,” Walters said.

Moving forward

Both McGuire and SAFAB Chair Chris Kohart acknowledged the frustrations shared by board members.

Kohart likened the lessons in 2022 to “building the airplane as we were flying.” He said he wanted to move forward in a productive way – potentially through a retreat with city staffers and SAFAB members. By learning more from city staff, he said he hoped to find a way for the board to be an effective part of the process in the future.

Enfield said she hoped the retreat could be scheduled soon.

“With this board, I think we’ve had an ongoing fear that we’ll be dissolved before we can finish our business,” she said.

Enfield was referring to a review process of boards and commissions underway by the city’s Board and Commissions Structure Committee.

McGuire said he wasn’t aware of plans to eliminate boards before that process had been completed.

“The committee’s not necessarily, wasn’t formed to dissolve boards, it was to make recommendations to make the whole, 40-plus advisory board structure more effective and better aligned with the city’s strategic plan,” McGuire said.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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