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SRJC nonprofit backs Measure O contribution as officials divulge informal spending plan

Directors of the Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation on Friday stood by the nonprofit’s previous contribution to a Sonoma County sales tax campaign after officials pledged reforms that could place limits on how and when the college’s foundation inserts itself into political issues.|

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Directors of the Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation on Friday stood by the nonprofit’s previous contribution to a Sonoma County sales tax campaign after officials pledged reforms that could place limits on how and when the college’s foundation inserts itself into political issues.

The SRJC Foundation, which supports the college and its students in myriad ways including millions annually in scholarships, contributed $20,000 on Sept. 25 to the campaign committee for Measure O, a proposed quarter-cent sales tax. If approved by voters Tuesday, the measure is estimated to generate $250 million over a decade for mental health services and programs.

The board’s show of support for the political donation in a special meeting Friday morning came amid the disclosure of documents that reveal the county and SRJC were in talks about steering millions of dollars from Measure O to the junior college well before Election Day — notwithstanding an official spending plan that says nothing about SRJC.

The $20,000 contribution was legal, permissible and appropriate, nonprofit officials said, because the tax revenue would directly bolster the SRJC Foundation’s mission of supporting students. But it was approved by the board’s executive committee in mid-September before the full board could have a say, let alone vote on the decision, prompting a single member, Doug Garrison, to object and ask his peers to seek a refund.

At the meeting Friday, SRJC President Frank Chong and board chair Steve Page acknowledged they needed a better process for future political contributions made by the nonprofit foundation. While its actions were within the authority of the executive committee — Page, Chong and four others — its votes going forward will be on “administrative issues and not things that rise to the level of real policy questions,” Page said Friday, acknowledging there should have been a full board meeting before the contribution was authorized.

“That’s a lesson learned and I will own that as the chair,” he said.

The foundation has given money to campaigns for two SRJC bond measures and one state community college bond proposition, but its September donation was the first in support of a general sales tax measure. The board will need to discuss whether the SRJC Foundation continues to give to political campaigns and if so, whether it should limit its giving to bond measures, Page said.

Chong, who suggested the contribution to the Measure O campaign, said he respected his fellow board members but stood by the nonprofit’s donation as an important step toward equity in mental health. He said he wouldn’t deserve his position as college president if he didn’t take this stand for mental health and believed in a “higher calling” than mere process, likening the need to sometimes shake off procedural constraints to the Revolutionary War.

“We can’t hide behind process,” Chong said. “Sometimes, our forefathers went against process in the Revolution in order to create the type of change that we have in the country that we see today.”

Garrison, the dissenting board member, made it clear that his objection was grounded in his concern over how the contribution was authorized. It was not based on the substance of Measure O, which he indicated he personally supported.

“I cannot separate process from the decision on this particular issue,” Garrison said Friday.

Ultimately, all board members besides Garrison on Friday voted to stand by the contribution. Though many voiced concerns of their own about the contribution process, they also noted the potential for Measure O to generate more than $8 million over 10 years, or $805,000 annually, for mental health services at SRJC.

The official expenditure plan mailed to voters makes no mention of any portion of Measure O’s revenue going directly to SRJC.

An internal copy of the expenditure plan — drafted by a Sonoma County staffer and disclosed to The Press Democrat by an SRJC spokeswoman this week — is nearly identical to the original, with a key difference: It replaces a category titled “Mental Health Services for Children and Youth” with one called “Mental Health Services at Community College for Students (including Veterans)” that specifically mentions “on-site mental health services for students attending Santa Rosa Junior College.”

The staff member separately noted the $805,000 annual revenue figure in an email Wednesday afternoon — also provided to The Press Democrat by an SRJC spokeswoman — that was sent to Chong; a partner with campaign consultancy firm TBWBH Props & Measures; and Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of the Department of Health Services.

A Sonoma County spokesman, Paul Gullixson, noted that “no agencies, programs or institutions are named specifically” in the official budget for the mental health sales tax measure, which went out to voters earlier this year as part of the county’s voter information guide.

But while there was no “formal agreement” between SRJC and the county, Gullixson said, “there was an understanding” as far back as March “that the SRJC would be a key part in the delivery of resources made available if the tax measure was placed on the ballot.”

“It's long been clear to the County that the SRJC, along with a number of other well-known local institutions and agencies, would be an important partner in the provision of services supported by Measure O,” Gullixson said in a statement.

The message from the staff member, which Gullixson said was sent at the request of SRJC, did not use the county’s public email system. Instead, the staffer sent it from her personal account to the personal accounts of Chong and Robinson. Asked why county staff made that transmission via personal email, Gullixson noted that county officials are under instructions to avoid using public funds or assets regarding ballot measures, even in general correspondence.

Regarding the use of personal email, the SRJC spokeswoman, Erin Bricker, said Chong was “volunteering his personal time to support this campaign and was using his personal email for that reason.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

For stories about what is on the local ballot, go here.

For the PD editorial board voter guide, go here.

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