Bloomfield Hills commission questions public safety nonprofit

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published June 24, 2019

 The Friends of Bloomfield Hills foundation is the Public Safety Department’s way of supplementing funding in an affluent community that would normally not qualify for grants, according to Chief  Noel Clason.

The Friends of Bloomfield Hills foundation is the Public Safety Department’s way of supplementing funding in an affluent community that would normally not qualify for grants, according to Chief Noel Clason.

File photo by Tiffany Esshaki

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BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Did you know that three years ago, a nonprofit foundation was established to be a sort of booster club for the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department?

The City Commission certainly didn’t know.

Judging from the conversation with public safety leaders during the commission’s regularly scheduled meeting June 11, the formation of that fund, the Friends of Bloomfield Hills,  could pose a problem.

Officer Chris Furlong appeared before the commission that evening because, as the foundation was establishing a board of directors and earning its 501(c)3 status, commissioners became aware of the organization and asked for more information. Furlong founded the group and sits on the board of directors.

Commissioner Sarah McClure said she had just heard of the Friends of Bloomfield Hills foundation the week prior, and her main reaction was confusion: What did the department need to fund that wasn’t provided in the city budget?

“On one hand I thought it was great that residents want to support our community and community relations, but then I had some other concerns and questions,” McClure explained. “These tend to be in cash-strapped communities, like Flint and New York City in the 1970s, L.A., and in 10 years of being a commissioner, there’s only two items that have been brought to the commission that we turned down. … I was kind of taken aback because I was never under the impression we weren’t giving officers the tools they need to do their job.”

She added another concern of hers to the mix, noting that unlike many organizations that could be aided by a booster organization, public safety departments and police departments in general are to be perceived as servicing everyone equally, whether they’re able to pitch in to the fund or not.

“We as a municipality have to be sure we do this in a very transparent and ethical way,” she said.

Chief Noel Clason said the establishment of the foundation came about a few years ago, after Furlong attended a grant writing workshop, and the idea was recommended to him.

“Because the city is so affluent, we don’t qualify for a lot of grants. It’s a waste of time to even go to grant school,” Clason explained. “(The grant instructor) said to us, ‘The way you do that is with a nonprofit. You can use that for specialized training, for benevolence, for an officer that died to help that widow in any department. And we do need equipment. I haven’t come to you with that yet, but a lot of it is antiquated and aging.”

According to the foundation’s website, some of the group’s current projects include a gun buyback program, first aid and CPR training, drug education programs, organized sports for children with opportunities to interact with law enforcement and Coffee with a Cop for adults, the latter two meant to build police engagement with the community.

Furlong apologized for not informing the commission directly of the formation of the foundation, understanding it could be perceived as a slight. But he said staff in the department worked on the effort quietly until they were confident such a fund could be established.

Moreover, he said, residents have been donating to the city and Public Safety Department for years, funding things like the annual open house and other items.

“People could donate in the past to the city. The problem is most community members, (I’ve learned) from me talking to them, feel more comfortable donating to a foundation that has a spelled-out mission, a spelled-out practice, and they know exactly where their funding is going, rather than it going into the general fund,” Furlong said.

Commissioner Michael Coakley echoed McClure’s concerns about transparency.

“I don’t know who all the board members are. I don’t know where the money is coming from. There’s no accounting in our system for money that comes in — at least I didn’t see any process for that. I don’t see any policy or procedure for conflicts of interest,” he said, addressing Furlong. “You serving on the board is a conflict, in my personal opinion.”

He said he took issue with some language on the foundation’s website, which states that “the Friends of Bloomfield Hills Foundation is the only organization authorized to raise funds on behalf of the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department.”

“Where did that authority come from? I didn’t give it. The commission didn’t give it,” Coakley asked.

Furlong noted that City Attorney Dirk Beckerleg was approached to address potential conflicts of interest, and Beckerleg reportedly said the foundation’s board was in the clear. The Friends of Bloomfield Hills also got Beckerleg’s blessing for transparency in stating policies for conflict of interest, and board appointments are included in the bylaws documents. McClure said those policies should be listed on the foundation’s website as well to be more accessible to the public.

She suggested the formation of a subcommittee to advise the foundation from a government perspective, to which all the commissioners agreed. Mayor Pro Tem William Hosler said that while he didn’t agree with McClure or Coakley on the perceived conflicts of interest, he was interested in exploring the foundation’s policies more.

Mayor Susan McCarthy agreed, saying the commission wants to be extra careful the foundation stays on the up-and-up so it can continue on reputably.

The commission closed the discussion by informally agreeing to work on learning more and making recommendations for the foundation via a subcommittee, to be formed in the next 30 days. In that time, the Friends of Bloomfield Hills may continue operations.

The Eagle reached out to City Clerk Amy Burton, Treasurer Keith Francis and Sgt. Steven Splan for an estimate of how much money has been donated to the department in recent years, but none were able to respond before press time.

 For more information about the Friends of Bloomfield Hills, visit friendsofbloomfieldhills.org.

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