Friday, December 16, 2016

City Council assigns liaison to low-profile, influential group

Posted By on Fri, Dec 16, 2016 at 3:31 PM

An agency that few have ever heard of found itself in the spotlight this week when City Councilor Jill Gaebler wanted to know why the city has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into it but no elected official serves on its board.

Gaebler: Seeking accountability.
  • Gaebler: Seeking accountability.
That agency is mPACT, a 13-member group under the auspices of the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, formerly the Regional Business Alliance.

The organization is a study in interconnections of power players. More about that later.

The city and Colorado Springs Utilities have paid a combined total of at least $50,000 in the past two years to mPACT, along with other local agencies. But the  Colorado Springs City Council had never been briefed on how the money was spent, until Dec. 13.

All that will change after Gaebler questioned the agency, because mPACT agreed to having a Council member serve as a liaison between the Council and board, and that member will be Gaebler.

After the briefing, Gaebler explained to the Indy her concerns about the group — whose main focus is apparently federal lobbying.

"I think an elected official should represent the city [on the board]," Gaebler said. "I now understand what their mission is, but I don't have any measurable outcomes. Typically, when we have a dues organization, we ask them to report out to us. It should be transparent about what they're doing with the funds we give them."

While Gaebler won't be a board member, her liaison status at least gets her in the door for meetings. "At least I can report back to Council and encourage them [mPACT] to report out to us their outcomes."

mPact is a mish-mash of 13 governments, private businesses and nonprofits that operate under the auspices of the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, which itself gets some funding from the city and El Paso County. Those allocations totaled  $190,000 this year from the city and county and $185,000 for next year.

Other mPACT members are Utilities, Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Chamber and EDC, Ent Credit Union, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, Pikes Peak United Way, UCH Memorial Hospital and Bryan Construction.

The chief purpose of the group is to "focus on action at the federal level," city economic development official Bob Cope told Council. That means having access and connections, which led mPACT to hire the lobbying firm Mehlman, Castignetti, Rosen, Bingel and Thomas in Washington, D.C.
Cope: Elected officials welcome.
  • Cope: Elected officials welcome.

"If any of us has an issue that has a federal implication," Cope said, "we can immediately access our lobbying firm and hit the ground running with a solution. We’re told over and over, if we have regional collaboration as one voice, it has much more impact."

Rachel Beck, with the Chamber and EDC, explained, "We do not have the resources to retain a lobbyist on the federal level on our own. There are so many voices, and this coalition helps us have a voice at that level and amplifies the efforts that we do and our partners do."

Cope credited mPACT with securing $19 million in federal funding for emergency watershed protection following the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, for federal assistance in setting up the National Cybersecurity Center here and for the Army's selection of Fort Carson as home to a Combat Aviation Brigade. According to a presentation from Cope, mPACT is targeting federal money for "regional priorities" that include protecting local military installations from realignment and closure, securing highway funds, flood and fire mitigation, economic development, sports, aviation and health care.

But mPACT never has briefed Council on its activities until Tuesday, and the city representatives have been staff members from the city government and Utilities, not elected officials.

So when Gaebler found out about the organization by accident, she began asking questions.

Besides the lack of accountability, which was addressed with the appointment of Gaebler as a liaison, mPACT seems to be an insider group that includes many of the same faces seen in other influential circles.

One of those is Stephannie Finley-Fortune, who acts as mPACT's "facilitator," according to mPACT documents obtained by the Indy.

A former Chamber official, Finley-Fortune was hired by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in April 2012 for the newly created position of executive director of university advocacy and partnerships, a part-time job that paid Finley-Fortune $57,500 a year.

But in less than a year, on Sept. 1, 2012, her job was converted to full-time and her current salary is $128,450.  She is active in various community groups and led the "vote yes" committee for the city-owned Memorial Hospital lease to University of Colorado Health during the summer of 2012. She also has been a player in the City for Champions tourism venture funded in part with state sales tax rebates.

Finley-Fortune serves on the United Way board with her husband, Kent Fortune, who's chairman.

Meantime,  Jason Wood, CEO of Pikes Peak United Way, explains in an email his agency's involvement with mPACT:
Periodically there is legislation introduced that will impact many who are served directly or indirectly by United Way. Policy changes can be big or small and when it is affecting important community issues, we want to bring another, different voice to the table. We are particularly interested in education issues, child tax credits and anything benefitting children and low income families. In the mPACT meetings, we are a part of the discussion about how and what we do to make Colorado Springs a community that works together for the betterment of all. We represent the often underserved, and this is one way we can be heard. We cannot dedicate a full-time staff person to monitor legislation and public policy that may impact our most vulnerable citizens.
Wood didn't say how much United Way contributes to mPACT, but documents show it paid $10,000 in each of the past two years. PPUW also agreed to contribute $12,500 a year for three years toward the hiring of a "grant writer" for mPACT.

The position was filled without competition with the hiring of Whitley Crow, the daughter of Lynette Crow-Iverson, who runs Conspire!, a drug-testing and business services firm. Crow-Iverson also contributed $12,500 toward the grant-writer salary. A member of Colorado Springs Forward's board until recently, Crow-Iverson reportedly plans a run against Gaebler in the upcoming April city election.

Three other contributors to the grant-writer expense included UCCS, an unnamed "third-party investor" and mPACT itself.

Whitley Crow, who's listed as an employee of Conspire! on its website, is described in a memo about the new mPACT job as "a great researcher" who "has the ability to write proposals to secure funding" and has the "confidence of many in key decision-making positions."

She operates from an office at United Way. (It's worth noting that United Way has asked the city and Utilities to pitch in $60,000 each to pick up the slack on funding its 211 help number after the state withdrew financial support for it.)

Gaebler questioned the need for the grant writer position, telling the Indy via email, "The City and County already have lots of grant writers who can assist with these economic development efforts, so it’s a mystery as to why mPACT believes this hire was necessary."

At the Council meeting Tuesday, Gaebler told Cope, "We’re told we have access to a lobbying firm, but we did not know they even existed until I asked the city staff about it.  Part of my issue is, we pay dues to this organization, yet we’ve never had a briefing. We don’t know what their strategic plan is. We don’t know how they’re measuring how they’re being successful for the 
click to enlarge Greene and Suthers announcing Greene's appointment.
  • Greene and Suthers announcing Greene's appointment.
city or other members.  Can we set up a process where they come to us on a regular basis and report out on their outcomes that might be aligned with our strategic plan?"

Cope said he welcomes Council participation in mPACT's meetings — held once a month by phone and once a month at the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors office. Gaebler volunteered to serve as liaison to mPACT and her colleagues agreed.
Jeff Greene, former county administrator who serves as Mayor John Suthers' chief of staff, also is involved in mPACT.

We've asked Cope several questions, including who comprises the mPACT board, but haven't heard back. We'll update if and when we hear something.

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