“Most of the time, we see only what we want to see, or what others tell us to see, instead of really investigating to see what is really there.”
– Suzy Kassem
Mayor Deborah Robertson of Rialto faces reelection in November. Having served two successful terms, she is poised to seek and secure another opportunity to continue serving the city in this role.
Although Robertson has already announced her candidacy, no challenger has officially filed to run against her in November, no one has stepped into the light of day to compete for the job—though rumors persist regarding who may be considering such a run.
In the meantime, Robertson has come under scrutiny and criticism in the media over an issue which on its face appears salacious; but upon further examination appears to be nothing more than a probable misinterpretation of legally sanctioned action by the mayor.
Robertson was elected Mayor in 2012 after two successful terms on the Rialto City Council. She swept to victory with 57.21 percent of the vote and was reelected in 2016 by an even broader margin.
Robertson’s work as Rialto’s leader and her popularity with constituents made her reelection in 2020 highly probable until news broke earlier this year questioning her ethics because she did not recuse herself from voting in favor of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for the National Council of Negro Women’s Rialto chapter (NCNW). Her daughter is President of the nonprofit organization.
In 2018, the Riverside auditing/accounting firm Teaman, Ramirez and Smith, Inc. examined the city’s compliance with all the requirements for such grants in accordance with the law. They scrutinized everything according to Robertson and specified nothing with respect to a conflict of interest.
“In 2019, the same firm looking at the same contract has now determined there is a conflict of interest,” Robertson explained. She insists there is much more to this story.
First, NCNW has been a recipient of CDBG funding since 2009 when the organization was located on Foothill Blvd. in Rialto, years before Robertson became mayor and years before the younger Robertson ever assumed the presidency of NCNW.
CDBG allocates funding for local communities to provide a variety of opportunities and services to low-income communities. There is also funding allocated to NCNW under Proposition 47 which provides mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment and diversion programs for at risk youth, and the HEAP program which serves both the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless.
In 2009, the mayor explained, she was advocating for more government presence in downtown Rialto. “The city owned a building in the downtown area, and we needed someone to serve as onsite manager.” The building is located at 141 S. Riverside Avenue.
NCNW agreed to assume this responsibility and located its youth program at the site. Currently, the building not only houses NCNW program(s), the facility also became home to other nonprofits and provides office/desk space for politicians to maintain local, periodic presence in the city. NCNW continues to serve as the facility’s site manager and has received continuous approval for CDBG funding since 2009.
In 2016, NCNW experienced a change in leadership due to the sudden death of the organization’s past president. At the time, Robertson’s daughter, Milele Robertson, was serving as the organization’s vice-president so she stepped into the role of president.
In summary, in 2009 NCNW became site manager for the city owned building which currently houses the organization’s Youth Program, other programs and office space as needed for state and local politicians. Three years later, in 2012, Robertson was elected to her first term as the city’s mayor. Four years later, in 2016, Robertson’s daughter became president of NCNW.
Basic math shows NCNW had served as the site manager of the city owned building and was also approved for CDBG funding a full seven years before Milele Robertson was unexpectedly elevated to the organization’s presidency.
Under M. Robertson’s leadership NCNW’s Community Block Grant continues to be subjected to the same rigorous and ongoing monitoring assessment as other organization’s in the city’s realm of responsibility who receive grant funding. This represents another two years of successful program compliance, bringing the total number of years NCNW been site manager to about 11 years.
NCNW has a long history of serving the region’s youth. Community leader and longtime NCNW member Lois Carson recently shared her sentiments about the allegations against Mayor Robertson stating, “I was the founder of the Inland Empire Section of the National Council of Negro Women 53 years ago in Rialto and have been a continuous member over all those years. We have offered youth programs 50 of those years.”
In addition, according to Carson, the organization has offered cultural programs, social services, as well as public policy and voter education/registration for members of the community. “For 26 years we conducted the Bethune Youth Center in Rialto, now serving adults as well.”
According to Carson, NCNW has always performed up to the government’s standard.
“Today, our president is the daughter of the Mayor of Rialto which the City Council claims [is] a conflict of interest.” Adding, “[O]ur president is a volunteer and receives no financial compensation as we have a paid staff.”
To add more context to the issue, Milele Robertson is not an employee of NCNW. She is a volunteer and is not paid by NCNW.
Mayor Robertson has secured an attorney—at her own expense because her peers on the city council did not approve her request for representation—to protect herself against accusations of nepotism.
The mayor was surprised by this allegation by her peers in February when she was asked to recuse herself from a vote to investigate alleged nepotism in the approval of CDBG funding for NCNW.
Purportedly, the nepotism was discovered during the most recent audit (2019) by Teaman, Ramirez and Smith, Inc. although they failed to note this as an issue when they completed a similar audit just a year before.
Supporters of the mayor question whether this issue was brought to the auditor’s attention by someone with an interest in damaging her reputation in advance of the November election.
When Robertson was first elected mayor in 2012, she roundly defeated her fellow councilmember and longtime Rialto politician, Ed Scott by nearly 13 points. Interestingly, Scott who still sits on the city council, now serves as Rialto’s Mayor Pro Tem.
In a statement to the SCNG in mid-March Scott said he became concerned about potential conflicts on the council and expressed support for the audit, “[To ensure] the city’s total transparency in how we do business and to make sure all nonprofits doing good things for our community have equal opportunities.”
Scott continued with additional emphasis, “Our city council is committed to making sure we are transparent in how we do business. When the city council became aware of potential issues,” he declared, “we all became concerned.”
It should come as no surprise it was Scott who motioned for the mayor to recuse.
Although the city’s Conflict of Interest Ordinance states, “No officer or employee of the city may contract with any person related to any officer or employee of the city by blood or marriage within the third degree,” the question of its relevance to this scenario appears doubtful.
The mayor’s attorney, retained at her own expense to represent her interests in this process, Allison R. Bracy of Collins Collins Muir + Stewart, LLP, consulted with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
As an elected official, Mayor Robertson is subject to the Public Reform Act’s conflict of interest provisions and subject to the mandates of the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
Bracy sought the informal guidance of the FPPC. She explained the 501(C)(3) status of the organization and its service to the community for more than 50 years. She described the type of funding in question, the programs it supports, the Mayor’s connection to the organization, her daughter’s position as its current president, as well as the role being voluntary and uncompensated.
Bracy further explained, “A question was raised whether the Mayor should recuse herself from the vote due to her familial relationship to the current President of one of the organizations. The organization is the Inland Empire section of the National Council of Negro Woman, a national community service organization.”
The FPPC provided the following informal advice, “Generally speaking, the type of situation you describe would not create a conflict under the Act, since 1) the mayor herself is not on the nonprofit board and 2) the daughter is an adult, and her position, in any event, is uncompensated.”
The attorney has since submitted a formal guidance request to the FPPC in this case.
Also, the Political Reform Act appears to exempt public officials when a nonprofit is involved. According to Attorney Bracy, “A nonprofit organization such as NCNW is not considered a “business entity” for purposes of the Political Reform Act.”
Bracy further considered whether Mayor Robertson’s daughter serving in the volunteer/non-compensated Board position of president of a nonprofit tax-exempt organization, requires the mayor to recuse herself from voting on contracts involving the organization pursuant to Government Code Sections 1090 or 87100.
These Government Code Sections were highlighted because the city’s special counsel, Randall Keen has suggested the mayor’s involvement in NCNW may be in violation of these codes. Section 1090(a) provides as follows: Members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by anybody or board of which they are members. Nor shall state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees be purchasers at any sale or vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.
Bracy disagrees with Keen’s assessment noting in communication to the city/him she wrote, “For Section 1090 to apply, the public servant must have a financial interest in the contract in question.”
She went on to explain although the term ‘financial interest’ is not defined in the statute, both case law and statutory exceptions provide ample guidance. “The term ‘financially interested’ includes any monetary or proprietary benefit, or gain of any sort, or the contingent possibility of monetary or proprietary benefits.”
Bracy further noted the phrase encompasses anything that would tie a public official’s fortunes to the existence of a public contract; in other words, “An official has a financial interest in a contract if he/she might profit from it.”
“[T]he agreement between NCNW and CDBG expressly provides that funds are to be paid monthly based upon the city’s review of monthly invoices and expenditures submitted to the City by NCNW. Payment is only processed after the city has verified that services were performed, and the expenditures made were consistent with the agreement.”
Regarding Code Section 87100, a public official may not make, participate in making, or use his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he has a financial interest. In this case, Section 87103 defines ‘financial interest’ as a governmental decision in which it is reasonably foreseeable it will have a material financial effect on one or more of the public official’s interests.
Such interests can include the personal expenses, income, assets or liabilities of the official’s immediate family, and the official’s own personal expenses, income, assets, or liabilities. In California, immediate family is defined as the spouse and dependent children. In addition, a dependent child is someone under the age of 18 who is claimed on the official’s federal income tax return.
“Milele Robertson is an adult and cannot be claimed as a dependent of Mayor Robertson,” stressed Bracy.
“Thus, effects on the personal finances of Milele do not create a conflict of interest [for] Mayor Robertson under the Public Reform Act.”
Finally, NCNW is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation providing services to Rialto residents which directly support the functions of the city. The city has a clear interest in providing job training to its young residents, as evidenced by the fact they have awarded funds to NCNW to do so for over ten years.
Special Counsel Breen has purportedly allowed the process to drag on for months without progressing toward a resolution—this has left the Mayor, her daughter, and the highly respected NCNW open to disparaging reports and commentary in the media, in addition to weighing the mayor’s election campaign down with unproven allegations, even as the election draws near.
Carson did not shy away from calling it as she sees it regarding the impact this allegation can potentially have on an historical Black nonprofit organization with a stellar record who has served the marginal communities in the inland region for decades.
In responding to the IE Voice/Black Voice News Carson declared, “The City Council’s question of a conflict of interest is a ‘red herring’ which does great damage to NCNW’s good name. It is a political strategy to oust the mayor now that she has brought the city to its highest level of prosperity in history.”
Based on the above, the mayor made it clear she sees no reason to recuse herself—it appears the law is on her side, and the city seems just as intent to withhold funding from NCNW until this issue is resolved, when they can just as easily move forward with the agency’s funding so the programs so essential to the community, especially in the wake of the double crisis of COVID-19 and civil unrest and concern in response to the death of George Floyd.
To deny NCNW funding during this critical time would be unwarranted especially in the eyes of minority communities who rely on such services, now more than ever.
Consider the closing comments of community leader Carson who declared, “We will fight this battle and we will prevail.”
Credit to Photographer Click Here