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Lamb says some discretionary City Council spending 'crosses a line'

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 12:30 p.m.
 

Pittsburgh City Council members often “cross the line” by using $8,000 allotted each year to their discretionary accounts for self-promotion, Controller Michael Lamb said on Tuesday.

During the past three years, they have donated to parades, subsidized community organizations and purchased ads in neighborhood banquet programs — all with public money, said Lamb in releasing an audit of council that examines spending from 2011 to 2013.

“There's nothing illegal about it,” he said. “We just question the spending and whether it's appropriate.”

Council President Bruce Kraus said he has formed a committee to examine the use of discretionary funds. Kraus said they should be used exclusively for district office enhancements.

According to the audit, council spent $161,993 on donations, part-time staffing, travel, continuing education sessions and office supplies from 2011 to 2013. Of that, $58,289 went to neighborhood-based groups to purchase items such as city pool passes, gift baskets for charity auctions and office furniture.

Members have wide latitude to spend the cash. Often, they use it to raise their profile with constituents by donating to neighborhood groups, Lamb said.

“If you're using public funds, you have to be able to demonstrate a public purpose,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Pennsylvania.

The St. Patrick's Day Parade committee refused to accept a $200 donation this year from Councilwoman Darlene Harris of Spring Hill but accepted donations totalling $300 in 2012 and 2013 from Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak.

Parade Chairman Pat O'Brien said the committee returned Harris' donation because it came from a city account and not her campaign fund. He said he was unaware of Rudiak's contributions, but the committee is investigating and will return any money sent from a government account.

“We don't take any government money for the parade,” he said.

Harris, who has been criticized for giving away crackers and candy canes with her name and title printed on the packages, said the donations benefits the city. She said the parade committee never objected to donations.

“I'm not spending money on lunches and wining and dining people,” she said. “I spend it on my community. Let the communities judge us.”

Rudiak noted in an email that council approved her donations but agreed with Lamb that council needs a strict policy regulating the use of discretionary funds.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said some community organizations that work exclusively with volunteers depend on council's contributions as their only means of support.

“I actually think it's a better use of funding sometimes than putting it into our offices,” she said, adding that she pays for self-promotional materials with campaign or personal funds.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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