Self-dealing discovered among First 5 commissioners in San Diego
What if First 5 commissioners had really gone out looking for dedicated individuals who
want to teach children? Maybe education in California would start to turn around.
I first read this story moments after finishing this post about the relationship between
Chula Vista Elementary School District and the YMCA. Now I discover that the YMCA is
involved in another scandal.
Deeper conflicts emerge in First 5 funding
Groups tied to advisers see millions in grants
By Jeff McDonald,
San Diego Union-Tribune
June 4, 2009
Background: First 5 San Diego Commissioner Charlene Tressler resigned Sunday, as
questions arose about $8.3 million in agency grants paid to a charity and a private
preschool run by Tressler.
What's new: The group's awarding of $67 million to organizations that employ its main
advisory committee members also is raising questions.
Funds from First 5 San Diego awarded to organizations with ties to the commission's
advisory committee, for the past three fiscal years:
2005-06: $33.76 million out of $90.93 million, or 37.1 percent of grant money given
2006-07: $10.16 million out of $22.9 million, or 44.4 percent
2007-08: $23.56 million out of $39.56 million, or 59.6 percent
The county's First 5 Commission has awarded at least $67 million in the past three years
to nonprofits and other groups that employ people who serve on its top advisory
committee, according to an analysis by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
The share of early childhood grants given to groups with ties to insiders has grown over
the years, from 37.1 percent three years ago to 59.6 percent last year, the newspaper
The findings show that conflicts of interest at the agency go deeper than those of former
Commissioner Charlene Tressler, who resigned Sunday as the newspaper prepared a
report about First 5 funds granted to the charity that employs her.
Robert Fellmeth, a University of San Diego law professor and director of the Center for
Public Interest Law, said public officials should know better than to steer so much money
to groups with which they have close relationships.
“If you're making a decision on the allocation of public money, you or your direct
employer or your personal interests should not be enriched by it,” Fellmeth said.
County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob chairs the First 5 Commission
by virtue of her county post...
Jacob said it's time for “a complete housecleaning” within the organization... “It's the
perception of a conflict of interest, even though the advisory committee does not make
[Maura Larkins' comment: This reminds of the Voice of San Diego story about San Diego
County Office of Education Superintendent Randolph Ward's claim that he makes
decisions about hiring. SDCOE is also involved in this scandal.]
...Tressler cited health reasons in her letter of resignation Sunday, which the county
made public Tuesday. County officials knew the Union-Tribune was planning to report
about Tressler's votes in favor of a preschool program that sent more than $8 million to a
charity she runs in Chula Vista.
In giving grants, Tressler and her colleagues relied on advice from a First 5 committee of
[Maura Larkins' comment: Did they bend her elbow to make her give money to herself?]
Of $153.39 million given out, at least $67.48 million went to groups with that inside track.
That's 44 percent.
Last year, the commission in part awarded $7 million to St. Vincent de Paul, $6 million to
the San Diego County Office of Education and $3 million to YMCA Childcare Resource
Service, all of which employ advisory committee members.
Michael Carr is the longtime executive director of SAY San Diego, which provides a
variety of youth services and receives money from First 5. Carr is also a member of the
First 5 Commission's advisory and finance committees.
Carr said he and other volunteers are aware of the potential for conflicting interests, but
he noted that committee members are seated because of their expertise and they have
no authority to spend money.
“It's a question of who's interested in this sort of public policy,” said Carr, who said he
would quit the committee rather than stop delivering the services he provides with First 5
“It's not my sense the majority of folks on (the advisory committee) agree to spend that
amount of time because of funding opportunities,” Carr said.
Joan Zinser, interim First 5 San Diego executive director, would not directly say why so
many commission grants were paid to groups with representatives on the advisory
committee. Zinser said only that they are “hands-on providers, dealing directly with
families we serve.”
Supervisor Ron Roberts, who last served as First 5 chair in 2007, said the distributions
represent “a major conflict of interest” and the system of rotating First 5 chairs based on
the supervisor chairmanship needs to be re-evaluated.
“The serial chair almost guarantees you have chairs coming in that don't have a good
enough grasp to effect the change you need,” said Roberts, who last month publicly
criticized the commission for sitting on a $200 million bank balance.
Proposition 10 deemed that there would be independent commissions in each county so
that First 5 spending decisions would be local, rather than fall to state political leaders...
Sherry Novick, who runs the First 5 Association of California trade group, said... early-
childhood experts in any region are too valuable as resources to exclude from programs
simply because they also serve as advisers.
“Frequently, the best provider is the one who's done it the most,” said Novick, who offers
regular training sessions for commissioners on avoiding conflicts of interest...
[Maura Larkins to Sherry Novick: Do they do it the most because they have friends in
high places? Which came first, the political connections or the contracts?]
Other First 5 commissions around the state also have been criticized for awarding
contracts to groups that advise the panels...
FIRST 5 TIES
Some of the organizations that received First 5 San Diego funds in 2008 and the
commission advisers who work for them:
St. Vincent de Paul: $7 million, Ruth Newton
San Diego County Office of Education: $6 million, Linda Scarpa
Rady Children's Hospital: $3.6 million, Kristin Gist
YMCA Childcare Resource Service: $3 million, Debbie Macdonald
Family Health Centers of San Diego: $2.3 million, Fran Butler-Cohen
Palomar Pomerado Health: $1.7 million, Annamarie Martinez
SAY San Diego: $1.7 million, Michael Carr
Watchdog Report ♦ Member of First 5 Commission steps down: Tressler reportedly had
conflict of interest
First 5's fund focus of county attention
By Jeff McDonald, Union-Tribune Staff Writer
May 24, 2009
FIRST 5 SAN DIEGO
Created in 1999 after California voters approved Proposition 10, imposing tobacco taxes
to fund early-childhood programs.
The five-member commission is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors. The
board chair serves as head of the commission.
State voters last week rejected the idea of taking First 5 early-childhood funds to help
balance the budget, but in San Diego County, the Board of Supervisors may find a way
to do it anyway.
County Supervisor Ron Roberts singled out First 5 San Diego earlier this month as he
and his colleagues sliced 771 positions from the county work force and a handful of
programs that help poor children.
“I was shocked to find that the First 5 commission has $200 million in the bank,” Roberts
said. “That is not a prudent reserve; that is a sinful reserve. There's something seriously
wrong with that organization.”
Roberts suggested that First 5 San Diego pay the $340,000 needed to keep open the
county's Child Health and Youth Clinics program, which serves about 1,750 patients
every year but is now slated to close June 12. Community clinics will be asked to pick up
...[Dianne] Jacob defended the healthy bank balance and said the amount of
unencumbered money the commission has is actually closer to $75 million...
For starters, longtime Executive Director Laura Spiegel resigned days after a March
meeting. The commission made no public announcement, and Jacob declined to discuss
the reason for Spiegel's departure.
Former county Health and Human Services Agency official Joan Zinser has taken the
reins on an interim basis. Jacob said the commission expects to name a permanent
successor later this year...
First 5 San Diego