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'Livable' Cities Gave Donations

Nonprofit group denies the award was sold to Ventura, Riverside or other recipients.

May 25, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

When Riverside was named one of the nation's "Most Livable Communities" in April, the city's libraries, diversity and its environmentally friendly "green power" energy program were touted as reasons for the honor.

What city leaders failed to disclose was another form of green power: Riverside and every other city honored paid $10,000 to the organization that released the list, Partners for Livable Communities.

Ventura and San Jose also paid $10,000 in city funds, and San Diego and Sacramento-area officials had private groups or residents pay, officials at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization said.

Bob McNulty, president of Partners for Livable Communities, defended the contributions, saying they were solicited only after the 30 cities were chosen. The money will help fund the organization's website, which for the next four years will highlight and promote each city that made the list.

"The award is not for sale," he said. "[The funding] is to get word out to the world."

But Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. in Sacramento, said the payments don't pass the "ha-ha test."

"I'm working two blocks from the Capitol. Don't tell me money doesn't influence decisions," he said. "Local government continues to complain about a lack of revenue for essential municipal services, including fire, police and libraries. Yet they're writing $10,000 checks to pay an organization that gave them an award. That's not good policy."

Ventura City Councilman Bill Fulton said that the award, which was covered in newspapers nationwide, was worth every penny. "The USA Today article alone is worth $10,000," he said. "You couldn't buy that kind of advertising. Oh, yeah."

Riverside City Councilman Art Gage agreed, saying it's a small price to pay for such good publicity. "It's certainly something we can hang on our Christmas tree and say 'Hey, look who we are,' " Gage said. "There are a lot of cities in the country, and only 30 of them received the award."

This is the fourth time the organization has issued the awards, but the first time the nonprofit asked cities for a donation.

"In past times when we've given the award, we realized the value of it really didn't stick," said Irene Garnett, a program officer with the group. "With this very unique exclusive award, we wanted the value of it to last for communities. The best way to do that is to have a website in this day and age."

Riverside's page on the website highlights the city's computer-access centers and loans for subsidized computers to low-income people, the city's inclusiveness policies and other programs.

Ventura's page highlights the city's public-art program, which encourages diverse artistic perspectives and offers economic opportunities to artists in the city.

"The reason for contracting with the center had nothing to do with the awards," said Rick Cole, who became Ventura's city manager after the awards were announced.

"The reality is that [Partners for Livable Communities] is a nationally known nonprofit resource for good ideas and technical assistance. Over time, a number of cities have established relationships. Some they gave an award to, some they did not."

Garnett said that receiving the award was not contingent upon agreeing to the payment, though all 30 cities either paid or found a private organization or individuals to pay for them.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a political science and law professor at USC, said the money taints the award. "There's a lot of ways for nonprofits to raise money," Chemerinsky said.

"It appears unseemly to do it by soliciting money from those they just bestowed awards on. I find it strange that someone said 'We're going to bestow this award on you. Now give us $10,000.' "

The group's website can be found at www.mostlivable.org.

Times staff writer Lynne Barnes contributed to this report.

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