DPS board member Andrea Merida today retracted a previous statement that she would not repay more than $8,000 in excess spending. Yesterday, Merida claimed that she would not reimburse the district because her spending was for “legitimate community engagement kinds of things and there is a lot of professional development lumped into that.”
The unrepentant Merida has merely been dialed back, not put in a corner entirely, as Merida’s statement on her website this morning shows:
Just a quick note to tell you that I’ve decided to pay back what I overspent from our board allotment. I want to be very clear, however, that I did not personally benefit from any of the expenses. There is no personal enrichment here, only spending to outreach to you and to become a better board member.
Perhaps Merida is a Ward Churchill fan, seeing as she’s apparently agreed to do the right thing after trying everything else.
It’s hard to see how there’s no personal benefit from things like restaurant dinners; granted, these may indeed be expenses she would not have otherwise incurred, but constituent meetings can easily be held without spending money.
The board president and I will go over what that amount actually is, since there’s still a lot of confusion about what should be part of the allotment and what is “traditionally” covered as a function of our duties. Once we get the accounting straightened out, I will know what the amount is and will work to pay it back, however painful. It’s only right.
This begins to raise some questions that go beyond Merida’s role on the DPS board: Why would any person be given a credit card without a specific and detailed spending policy? Anyone who’s ever held a corporate credit card has likely also had the privilege of reading at length and signing a spending agreement roughly the length of War and Peace.
The board president and I are also working together to put some policy in place. Nothing should be left to memory, and our procedures need to be put down on paper as we transition for the next board that will be elected in November. We still don’t have a system to help members track what they’re spending, and it’s not fair to anyone (especially to you) to leave things so loose.
No system to track spending? Really? In the Internet age? DPS watchdogs should investigate this claim and, if it’s proven true, advocate for the implementation of a system to track and control spending on all DPS credit cards. There are numerous software options that would likely pay for themselves within one year if they prevented both the overspending that occurred this year and the resultant PR mess.
Merida’s never been the most popular elected official on this blog, and her arrogance at the outset of this scandal rightly provoked outrage. However, her statement today should not be written off simply due to any personal distaste for Merida. If the accounting issues alluded to are legitimate, Merida’s misbehavior may have revealed a much larger problem.
As a former board member for a local nonprofit, I don’t think it’s improbable that certain spending policies were part of the “oral history” of the board, never committed to writing; in the community service world, it seems this sort of foolishness often is known to be a problem, but there are always other priorities and the can gets kicked down the road until something blows up. DPS observers should watch in the coming days and weeks for a statement from DPS clarifying their accounting practices and, if none is forthcoming, demand it.
The major Denver newspaper shed a little light today, which will not be linked here for the usual reasons, but what has so far been revealed raises more questions than it answers. Highlights include that the policy was last revised in 2002 and does not appear to clearly differentiate between “political work” and “community outreach.” Day care is explicitly paid for from the $5,000, but cell phone expenses (over $2,000 for Merida) are reimbursed separately. The DPS board plans to revisit and revise these policies. Taxpayers deserve clarification and the opportunity to review, at the very least, a detailed summary of the final version.
As for Andrea Merida, it will be up to her constituents to decide whether or not her performance as a board member is good enough to outweigh the air of scandal that tends to follow wherever she leads, and up to her supporters to advocate for her if they genuinely believe that she’s been wronged by this week’s media coverage. Merida should begin by excising from her circle whichever individual advised her to tell reporters she wouldn’t repay the district. If the “damn the torpedoes” strategy was a Merida original, her next batch of “professional development” spending ought to include a course in basic crisis communications.