EDITORIAL: Comfort House funding necessitates new McAllen city policy

It appeared to be a contentious few minutes last week when members of the McAllen City Commission, during a budget review for next fiscal year, discussed funding for a local nonprofit organization that employs one of their own.

And while two of the city commissioners had clear and distinct differences over whether the Comfort House, a 10-bed hospice, should receive any taxpayer funding, we find ourselves in the unique position of agreeing with both sides of this argument.

At the heart of the debate is City Commissioner Veronica Vela Whitacre, who became executive director of the Comfort House in 2015. Whitacre is a bulldog of an advocate for an organization that was going through a public relations nightmare when a previous executive director was charged with capital murder.

While Whitacre has worked tirelessly to sustain Comfort House through the controversy created by her predecessor, Whitacre’s position on the McAllen City Commissioner created a new problem: Federal funding to the tune of $50,000 suddenly went away because of concerns that Whitacre posed an insurmountable conflict of interest as both executive director of Comfort House and as a city commissioner.

We agree with City Commissioner Omar Quintanilla that the Comfort House is “a worthwhile organization” that provides a necessary service in our community. As such, city officials should consider some taxpayer funds to help sustain Comfort House, just as taxpayer funds sustain many other nonprofits that contribute to the quality of life in this community.

But we also agree with City Commissioner John Ingram who expressed concern that the conflict of interest created by Whitacre’s dual role could set a bad precedent and is rife for potential abuse in the future.

While the passion of Ingram’s argument during the debate occasionally crossed the line — he called Quintanilla “naïve” and said Comfort House board of directors “made a bad decision” in hiring Whitacre — we agree with the substance of his argument: The situation leaves taxpayer funds vulnerable to future abuse.

For one, the notion that Whitacre could have undue influence over city officials who make recommendations on funding levels. For another, does this set up the city commission for similar arrangements in which nonprofits need only hire a city commissioner to get city funding?

That’s why, ultimately, we agree with McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who rightly pointed out during Wednesday night’s budget workshop that this situation is unprecedented and so the city commission should set a policy to guide them with future funding decisions.

That Whitacre should recuse herself from any funding decision almost goes without saying, but that should be Priority One in any new policy.

An equally important priority is the notion that anyone who finds him or herself in a situation similar to Whitacre’s should absolutely be prohibited from any type of direct communication with city staff about the organization that person represents.

And just as members of the city commission must now fill out a form declaring when any conflict of interest exists with them regarding business being considered by the rest of the commission, a similar declaration should be mandated in which a city commissioner attests that no direct communication with city staff has occurred regarding the organization they represent.

Only with such safeguards in place should the McAllen City Commission then consider taxpayer funding go to such organizations like the Comfort House.

We believe this nonprofit plays a vital role in our community and is deserving of taxpayer funds as a supplement to other funding sources. But we believe even more strongly that taxpayers must be protected from the potential for any abuse by any organization seeking city funding.