Camas reviews city’s contracts with nonprofits

Decision to audit longstanding financial support surprises downtown association, several city council members

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Carrie Schulstad (right), executive director of the Downtown Camas Association, talks about Camas' downtown businesses during the Columbia River Economic Development Council's Main Street Day tour on July 13, 2018. (Post-Record file photo)

A decision to review money flowing from the city of Camas to local nonprofits has caught some nonprofit leaders as well as a few city councilmembers off guard. 

“We’re not saying we’re not going to fund (the nonprofits), we’re just saying we’re making a process around it,” Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson explained during the city council’s March 15 workshop after a councilmember asked why the city’s annual $15,000 contract to fund Downtown Camas Association (DCA) projects was on hold. “We’re daylighting all of our contracts so (the council) and the public and everyone, including these organizations, know what the city is doing and understand where tax dollars are going.” 

Councilmember Steve Hogan said he and other councilmembers believed the city had already agreed to fund the DCA’s $15,000 contract in 2021, and were surprised to learn that city leaders were now reviewing the city’s nonprofit contracts, including the DCA’s funding. 

“It’s a noble idea,” Hogan said of city administrator Jamal Fox’s push to review the city’s contracts and make the process more transparent, “but that was not communicated during the budget process. We were under the assumption that we were rolling over that budget. … If that’s not going to happen, then this would be the time to pull it out of the budget. If we’re not going to give that money — and I don’t understand why we wouldn’t — to the DCA, we need to talk as a council about what we do with that $15,000.” 

Mayor Barry McDonnell said he and Fox wanted to review the city’s contracts with nonprofits “to have a clear understanding of where that money was going.”

Huber Nickerson added that city leaders had “learned a lot from CWEDA,” referring to fraud allegations against former Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA) head Paul Dennis that came to light in early 2020, and wanted to be apple to show where its money was going and what the city was receiving from its contracts with local nonprofits. 

Councilmember Don Chaney asked why, if the nonprofit contract-review process was linked to Dennis’ charges of defrauding taxpayers, city leaders had not brought the issue up earlier. 

Chaney said he didn’t understand “if this was inspired by the CWEDA issue, why it took until after (city councilors) passed the budget to have this conversation, since CWEDA took place early on in the mayor’s first year.” 

“Since I’ve been on council, we’ve dedicated certain amounts of money to DCA,” Chaney said. “I’m pretty disappointed that, here we are in March, and we have discovered they’re not going to be funded. It’s an issue of credibility for me. I believe it was marked in the budget and would be given to them. To not do it now seems somewhat shortsighted. I’m disappointed.”

McDonald said city leaders were not “trying to reduce anything” but rather “trying to get clarity.” 

“We may say (the DCA will receive) $20,000,” McDonnell said. “We just want to make sure we have the process in place to support this.” 

McDonnell and Fox met with DCA Executive Director Carrie Schulstad in early March to “spell out that process.” 

Schulstad said the decision doesn’t throw a huge wrench in the DCA’s budget plans — “we have a reserve so we can adapt to small changes like that,” she noted, adding that the city’s annual $15,000 contribution is usually doled out to the DCA later in the year, anyway. 

“It’s just … we’re longtime partners, so it felt like, ‘Let’s have a little bit further of a conversation,’” Schulstad told the Post-Record last week. “We have a contract to do things for the city that we do very well. And $15,000 is not a ton of money, but it shows that (the city) appreciates the marketing, events and downtown beautification that we do.” 

Schulstad said she understands what McDonnell and Fox are trying to accomplish with the city’s review of nonprofit contracts, but wishes city leaders hadn’t lumped the DCA, which hosts events like First Friday that regularly — during non-pandemic times — drew huge crowds to Camas’ downtown business area, in with every other nonprofit in the city. 

“We can certainly provide whatever they need us to provide. We run a very clean, tight ship,” Schulstad said. “If you look at the return on investment compared to our contract, it’s huge.” 

Councilmember Shannon Roberts said Schulstad and other DCA executives have been very clear about where the city’s annual $15,000 is going. 

“I know (the DCA) have sent a detailed listing of everything they spend the money on and everything they do every month,” Roberts said at the March 15 workshop. 

Councilmember Ellen Burton said “it sounds like the city is working on a number of processes and practices to bring them up to best practices,” and that she thought all of the councilmembers were “in favor of that.” 

“We want an effective and efficient operation and that’s why we brought on Jamal,” Burton said of the decision to hire Fox in late 2020. “It would be helpful to have a high-level review of key practices and processes being updated so we can be ready and supportive. And, in the future, make sure we are timely in our communications with our partners.” 

Camas Communications Director Bryan Rachel said city staff will update the city council on the matter at the April 19 council meeting. 

Asked how much money the city regularly gives area nonprofits and how many nonprofits are impacted by the city’s decision to review those contracts, Rachel said the city is pulling that information together for its contract audit, scheduled to begin on April 5. 

The city also released a statement about the nonprofit contract reviews to the Post-Record on March 23, and said: “The practice of reviewing (nonprofit) contracts is standard in most cities and something we plan to implement in Camas. The purpose is to promote partnerships between the City and local (nonprofit) organizations for the benefit of the community, to equitably and efficiently allocate resources to strengthen organizations, and to streamline our processes that will provide sound and clear methods for decision-making.

In the statement, city leaders said “there wasn’t a specific event that spurred this, but rather the idea of ensuring fairness and transparency in (its) processes” and added that, although they have no set timeline for when they might reach out to nonprofits impacted by the contract reviews, city staff “is working diligently to complete the process, as (city leaders) understand the applicants have timelines to meet as well.”