Some in the UG wonder: Can you spell ABC without Ann Murguia?
Since she was first elected to the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Commissioners, in 2007, Ann Murguia has been dogged by the perception that she influences that government’s decisions in favor of the nonprofit she runs.
For a time, the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association — a nonprofit development entity representing the south Wyandotte County neighborhood — cashed checks written to it by the Unified Government. Murguia is ANDA’s executive director.
With just these transactions in mind, a majority of commissioners in 2009 voted to change the ethics code, a move that curtailed ANDA’s UG cash flow. But Murguia’s dual roles as UG commissioner and ANDA director, and the way those two roles intersect, remain problematic.
The latest example is the UG’s plan to spend its allocation of Community Development Block Grants. The federal grants, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are distributed to local governments, to be spent under the broad mandate of community development in low- to moderate-income areas.
With more than $2 million in CDBG funding to dole out this year, UG Mayor Mark Holland formed a subcommittee of UG commissioners to vet and make recommendations from community organizations applying for the federal dollars. Holland put Murguia and three other commissioners on that subcommittee, which took applications in February and spent the following months evaluating the grant requests.
When the CDBG subcommittee made its final recommendations from 12 applications seeking a combined total of $1 million, it suggested sending $500,000 to a nonprofit called the Argentine Betterment Corp.
ABC formed shortly after the 2009 changes to the ethics code that forbade ANDA from receiving direct benefits from the UG as long as Murguia was the nonprofit’s executive director. ABC took ANDA’s place as Argentine’s neighborhood business revitalization group, a designation that entitles ABC to county money each year.
ABC’s executive director is Mario Escobar, an Argentine resident who used to be on ANDA’s board of directors. Many of ABC’s directors have been ANDA directors in the past.
When The Pitch profiled Murguia this past spring (“Queen Ann,” May 7, 2015), Escobar said Murguia had no involvement in ABC’s affairs. Murguia said at the time that she advised Escobar, and that Escobar sat in on some of ANDA’s board meetings.
Murguia’s opponents believe that ABC operates at Murguia’s behest.
ABC applied February 20 for $500,000 in CDBG money, as part of a larger $2 million project to refashion dilapidated buildings in Argentine and the Highland Crest neighborhood in Turner into low- and moderate-income housing. Listed on its application as a partnering agency was ANDA.
That annoyed Holland, who, as a commissioner, had led the charge in 2009 to revise the UG ethics code. He raised his concerns at a heated July 16 special meeting of the UG Board of Commissioners.
“This is my question, and this is where I have a problem: If ANDA is listed as a partnering agency and the executive director is on the subcommittee, advocating for this project,” Holland said. “When I talk to [Community Housing of Wyandotte County] CHWC and I talk to Habitat for Humanity and said, ‘Were you all aware of this project and this money that was available,’ and they said, ‘No,’…they didn’t apply. The one that did apply was one with a partnering organization with a commissioner as the executive director [Murguia] advocating for it during the meetings and advocating for it right now without a recusal, without a stated conflict.”
Murguia replied that ANDA receives no money from ABC. She added that ANDA acts as an unpaid adviser to ABC because ANDA is, she said, a “successful developer.”
“What do you think the problem is?” Murguia asked Holland. “What are you insinuating?”
Another issue raised by some commissioners during the July 16 meeting was whether community organizations knew that the CDBG subcommittee had decided to place more emphasis on what it called “bricks and mortar” development projects for this year’s round of CDBG money than on social-service organizations. And did ABC’s leadership know about such a change before that group submitted its application?
Angela Markley, a District 6 commissioner and the chairwoman of the CDBG subcommittee, discounted these concerns. During the July 16 meeting, she said, “What the committee said is, we want to fund bricks-and-mortar projects, and we went back to our notebook, and there was only one bricks-and-mortar project that was requested. So we said, OK, one was requested, let’s see if we have enough money to fund it…. ABC didn’t have advanced notice, which seems to be what you [Holland] are implying, that we’re just trying to give away $500,000. They just happened to be the only ones that applied for bricks-and-mortar money.”
Markley says the subcommittee acted transparently and sees no problem with ANDA’s listing as ABC’s partnering agency.
“It [ANDA] is not receiving money from us directly,” Markley tells The Pitch. “By our ethics commission, that is fine.”
But what about Holland’s point, that the ABC application had a partnering agency, unpaid or not, which had a vote on the CDBG subcommittee?
Murguia tells The Pitch that she disclosed ANDA’s participation in the ABC proposal out of concern for transparency.
“I would not have authorized Mario to put our name on that application if I wasn’t trying to be sensitive to the mayor’s transparency issue,” Murguia tells The Pitch. “He’s been on my back about the transparency issue from the beginning. Out of respect for him and his strong position against me, period, I told Mario, ‘Absolutely, put it on [the application].'”
UG Ethics Administrator Ruth Benien found ANDA’s inclusion on the application concerning.
In a July 27 memo to Holland and other UG commissioners, she said Murguia would be disqualified from voting on the ABC application if ANDA remained a partnering agency without more disclosure about its role and financial interest in the project. Benien said she could detect no intentional violation of the UG ethics code — allowing both Holland and Murguia to say that Benien’s memo vindicates their differing positions.
But other community groups find no victories in this year’s CDBG process.
CHWC executive director Donny Smith sent written testimony to the July 27 UG budget hearing, saying his organization did not know that UG now planned to invest more CDBG money into affordable housing. Armed with this knowledge, Smith plans to apply next year.
Brenda Shivers, director of the Northeast Economic Development Corporation, said her organization didn’t apply for CDBG funds this year because it was told to spend previous years’ allocations before asking for more money. She noticed that ABC had received CDBG allocations in the past but hadn’t started work on its respective project.
An earlier CDBG allocation to ABC is listed as a source of income for a housing project in Argentine that seeks to replace run-down buildings with 14 senior-housing cottages.
The Pitch obtained a pro forma describing that project as an “ANDA housing” proposal. It includes the $500,000 from CDBG as a source of funding for the $2.4 million endeavor. The project would pay out a $50,000 developer’s fee.
Murguia tells The Pitch that the pro forma’s combining of ABC’s and ANDA’s involvement in the project is a clerical error. She says ANDA would build about 12 of the cottages with its own money; ABC, she says, could build the remaining units with its CDBG allocation and other sources.
“There’s no money going to ANDA,” she says. She adds that a developer hasn’t yet been chosen for the project.
While ANDA’s involvement in the ABC application could be seen as another episode in the Holland-Murguia political rivalry, other commissioners also question the CDBG process.
Jane Winkler Philbrook, a District 8 commissioner, said during the July 16 meeting that she heard complaints from unnamed organizations about this year’s CDBG allocation process.
“When I have different organizations come at me and tell me that they did not like this process, and that they have been involved in this process for a lot of years and did not like it and thought that it was just a little bit murky, I don’t like to appear murky, whether it’s intended or not,” she said. “Because it’s easy enough to happen, as we all know.”
She went on: “I cannot personally defend this. I can’t sit here and defend it to people and say there’s no problem when it blatantly looks that way.”
Murguia fired back: “I think the only thing going on here is bad politics going on in the other direction. So I will tell you, if people want to start throwing stones at each other and calling people out what appears to be dirty or murky, we can absolutely have that discussion. I would rather not. I would rather rise above that fray. So when people start insinuating murky things are going on, you should attend the meetings before you spout off and gather your facts.”
The UG commission votes on the budget, including whether to adopt the CDBG subcommittee’s recommendations, at its Thursday, July 30, meeting.