Planned improvements to Philadelphia libraries, the Ben Franklin Parkway and Fairmount Park could be delayed or undermined by the William Penn Foundation's response to an ethics complaint by an education activist group.

Last week, the foundation notified city officials it would not fund a planned recreational trail linking the east and west banks of the Schuylkill River until questions resolved about whether foundation grants are covered by a city lobbyists' disclosure law are resolved.

Now city officials have listed three other projects which they'd hoped to get William Penn Foundation funding for that could be affected. The city hasn't formally applied for funding, but officials have had staff conversations about the projects, according Mayor Michael Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald.

A lobbying philanthropist?

At issue is a complaint filed in December by Parents United for Public Education and the Philadelphia NAACP.
The groups contend that when the foundation engaged the Boston Consulting Group to advise the Philadelphia School District on school closings and other issues, it was effectively hiring a lobbyist and is thus bound by the disclosure requirements of a 2010 Council ordinance.

The foundation's response, first reported in Philadelphia City Paper, was to halt grant activity for city projects until it's clear whether such work will trigger disclosure requirements under the lobbying law.

"The foundation wants to ensure our full compliance with the ordinance and is awaiting further clarification with regard to its scope concerning permissible grant activity," interim foundation president Helen Davis Picher said in a prepared statement.

Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Michael DiBerardinis said the administration plans to seek foundation funding for important projects, such as improvements to the city's 48 neighborhood libraries.

"We're talking about upgrading the technology and the availability of online services," he said. "We're talking about interior and exterior physical improvements — entryways, lighting, and general major systems upkeep."

DiBerardinis said other projects targeted for William Penn funding are a study to find ways to connect and facilitate usage of the zoo, the Please Touch Museum, Kelly Pool, and other facilities in West Fairmount Park. City officials also are looking for Penn dollars to pay for the just-announced plan to upgrade the Ben Franklin Parkway.

The foundation would be asked to fund only a portion of the projects. McDonald declined to estimate how much the city would seek, but it's expected to be in the millions of dollars.

Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, a non-profit associated with the University of Pennsylvania School of Design finds the issue raised by the complaint troubling.
He noted that the William Penn Foundation hired PennPraxis for an extensive planning and community engagement process that helped public agencies make plans for the Philadelphia waterfront.

Steinberg said that effort was similar in structure to the foundation's contract with the Boston Consulting Group to advise the school district. "If in fact this is seen as lobbying, and it has a negative impact on the way the foundation does business in Philadelphia, the impact on the nonprofit as well as the civic infrastructure could be profound," Steinberg said.

Untying the knot

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education said she sees no reason why the foundation's traditional grant-making activity should be affected by the complaint.
Gym said the foundation's contract with Boston Consulting Group listed specific policy goals, such as closing 60 schools and expanding charter schools.

"We felt that there's a difference between a philanthropy funding a planning process and a philanthropy determining what the end goals of that planning process are to be," Gym said. "There's a huge difference between the two."

William Penn Foundation officials were not available for interviews.

Board of Ethics officials are prohibited from commenting on pending complaints, but it appears likely the board's staff will have to consider the Parents United complaint seriously.

Other non-profits, such as the watchdog group Committee of Seventy which explicitly advocate policy positions do have to file reports under the lobbyists disclosure law.

Whether the William Penn Foundation's engagement of Boston Consulting Group triggers disclosure will likely depend on a review of the contract and other relevant communications.

That could take time, and Mayor Nutter doesn't want to wait.
Today he wrote the city Ethics Board asking it to "promptly issue a statement" confirming that the city's lobbying disclosure law "does not apply to grants made by philanthropic or government organizations to the City and City-related agencies."

Ethics Board Executive Director Shane Creamer replied in a letter that he would present Nutter's request along with the staff's proposed response to the board at its meeting Wednesday.