In our view: Insist on real accountability and transparency

 

 

In this issue of the MSR we conclude, at least for now, our series on “Chasing the Tornado Money.” While many individuals and organizations were very cooperative and helpful to us in pursuing the several stories that went into this series, we also met with considerable resistance, in some cases even outright hostility, and we consider that a bad sign for the community.

Our objective in this series was simple: to do our best to share with readers how the funds raised for addressing the tornado crisis that wreaked such havoc on Minneapolis’ North Side were used to repair the damage and support the victims. In our view, we were providing an important service to the community, being fully aware of the pervasive skepticism, if not deep cynicism, regarding how such resources are deployed and who benefits. We believe this is not baseless paranoia but the result of real abuses that have occurred in the past and left a sour legacy.

We did not go looking for any misuse of tornado funds. In fact, we hoped our series would overall be a positive one about a city and community coming to the rescue of fellow citizens who were the victims of a natural disaster. We hoped this would dispel rumors and doubts and encourage greater trust in those responsible for overseeing such efforts.

And, in fact, we did for the most part find just such encouragement and inspiration. Most of the organizations involved did everything they could to meet the challenge and were willing to share with us their achievements and ongoing challenges. One key organization, the Northside Community Response Team (NCRT), even had an Accountability and Transparency Committee that promised to meet with us and keep us regularly apprised of the group’s progress.

That’s exactly what we’d hoped to document in the series: genuine accountability to the community as to who was paid to do what, and transparency as to just how the tornado money was spent. Unfortunately, the reality fell considerably shy of those hopes.

We encountered fierce resistance from some among the NCRT leadership for presuming to hold anyone accountable, most particularly them. It was not long before the Accountability and Transparency Committee ceased to exist and the flow of information dried up. Threats were made to restrict access to meetings we understood to be public. The MSR later learned that some members of the NCRT, apparently to keep people from talking with us, spread false and misleading information among participating organizations that the MSR “hated” the NCRT.

The Minneapolis Foundation, which performed a great service by raising and allocating the disaster funds, was very helpful and supportive of our inquiries — up to a point. Their information was detailed and specific regarding which organizations received how much money, with a general description of how the money was to be used. The numbers on organizational funding levels reproduced in this issue, taken from the foundation’s website, are easily accessible to the public.

But as to whether the money was in fact used as intended, we were told the community should just trust the foundation on that. Asked to provide further details on expenditures, including the reports submitted by the funded organizations, the foundation stated that it was under no obligation to release such information and does not intend to do so.

We wish the foundation could be more transparent in this regard and help us assure the community that all funding has achieved its intended purpose. We also wish that we had been better able to account for significant sums raised by special fundraising events, most of which disappeared into organizational coffers we could not track down. That does not mean that these funds were misused, only that there can be no public accountability for them.

Most important, we regret the hostile responses from some quarters to a newspaper doing its job, asking the hard questions as well as the easy ones and trying to tell real stories rather than innocuous fluff pieces. Such resistance inevitably suggests that someone has something to hide, true or not, and only adds to the suspicions among members of the community we had hoped to dispel.

We encourage ongoing community-wide support of accountability and transparency wherever possible — which in our view should be just about everywhere. One positive outcome of this process has been to highlight the critical importance of accountability and transparency in healing the community of old wounds.

The Minneapolis Foundation advised us that to find out more about how and where the funded organizations spent their money, we should contact the organizations themselves and get that information from their annual reports. That’s more than we can do — but we can encourage our readers to do it for us.

We urge community members to insist on complete accountability and transparency from every organization spending government and foundation money, and not just those assisting tornado victims. Make accountability and transparency watchwords for a new era of honest, responsible community stewardship.

For MSR’s part, we believe that making all expenditures of public or charitable funds accountable and transparent to the community served is a fundamental duty of responsible journalism. If that continues to be interpreted by some as “hate,” then we do not see much hope any time soon for dispelling those cynical rumors of corruption and misuse of funds.