Naperville council’s grant funding to nonprofit cut after questions about ties to councilman arise

The Naperville City Council cut grant funding for a local nonprofit agency after a council member’s familial ties to the organization were questioned.

Over the past two decades, the city of Naperville has allocated funding to area organizations through its annually awarded Social Services Grant program. Elected officials approved 2024 allocations at Tuesday’s council meeting — but with a caveat.

The Career & Networking Center had its grant reduced from initially recommended $1,750 to $500 due to the possible appearance of impropriety.

The executive director of the Career & Networking Center is Kim White, who is married to two-term Councilman Benny White.

Councilwoman Jennifer Bruzan Taylor asked that the center’s allocation be reduced because she believed it was inappropriate for White to have a say in any grant funding being awarded to an organization where he has a financial interest through a family member.

White recused himself from voting on the grant allocations Tuesday and filled out a disclosure of interest form at the advice of city staff before the meeting. But Taylor maintained “that does not cure the appearance of impropriety that occurred.”

She argued that “a portion of that money, albeit a very small amount of it, would become household income since his wife is a paid executive director.”

Taylor’s remarks incited surprise and debate on the dais, but grant allocations — including a reduced Career & Networking Center award — were approved with a 6-2 vote. Council members Allison Longenbaugh and Ian Holzhauer voted against the funding.

Holzhauer asked why the matter couldn’t have been discussed behind closed doors.

“Frankly, it seems a little political,” he said. “I think this could have been handled in a completely different fashion, perhaps ahead of time. … I think this could have been done better. But I can’t really say anything other than I’m disappointed with the conversation we’re having right now.”

The conversation persisted through Tuesday’s meeting. White, raising the issue again during new business, addressed Taylor directly.

“So, Councilwoman Taylor, if you had an issue with any of this, it baffles me that you couldn’t pick up a phone and talk to me about it,” he said. “Instead, you decided to do it in a public forum. You say it’s not political? I call BS on that. You got out here on a public forum to talk about me and my wife and my family. And it’s totally inappropriate.”

Discussion briefly devolved into a verbal fight until Mayor Scott Wehlri interrupted.

“We’re going to move forward,” he said. “We’re not going to have an argument at the dais amongst elected officials.”

Naperville established the Social Services Grant program in 2005. It’s intended to provide funding to enhance the ability of nonprofit agencies to provide needed services to the community. Funding comes from the city’s food and beverage tax.

For 2024, there was $500,000 in grant funding available for disbursement. Forty-eight organizations requesting a total of $1,394,463 applied for the money.

Boiling requests down to final funding recommendations is a complicated process.

The bulk of the funds are doled out by a committee that scores grant applications on a 100-point scale. The reviewer team includes representatives of different city commissions, task forces, Naperville School District 203 and a non-scoring council member.

There are seven evaluation criteria the committee takes into account, ranging from the impact of an applicant’s project to whether the costs requested are reasonable. Application scores decide how 80% of the funds are divided among the organizations.

The remaining $100,000 is reserved for council members to propose allocations to projects of their choice. Each member suggests how they’d like to see the full $100,000 split. Members’ proposals are averaged out and added to committee allocations for the full recommended awards.

Council members are not given any parameters when deciding their preferred allocation, according to Miranda Barfuss, Naperville’s community grants coordinator. Members are given the same scoring sheet and guidelines that the committee uses, she said.

“I don’t know the extent to which they review that but that’s all the guidance that we give,” Barfuss said.

In a call Wednesday, White said he has donated to his wife’s organization through the city’s Social Services Grant program every year since he was elected to council in 2017. He also said “this has never come up before” as a problem.

The Career & Networking Center, established in 1996, helps people who are unemployed or underemployed find a new or better job so they can be more financially stable and self–sufficient, according to the center’s website. Kim White has been with the organization since 2005, her LinkedIn page says.

When he initially joined the council more than six years ago, White said he “asked the question” of whether there was a conflict.

“I know my wife — everyone knows my wife — is the director. It’s no secret. I don’t make it a secret. But we’ve been given the option to who we want to. I’ve asked that question.”

White maintains he “followed the rules as they have been presented over the years” and that if asked, he would have talked the issue through.

“Even when we started the process, we could have said, ‘Hey what about this?’ We could have had that discussion. I’d have been the person to explain it. If the council had decided … (that) we don’t think that’s what we should do from now on, fine. Just let me know,” he said.

But for Taylor, there was no other time to raise her concerns than during Tuesday’s meeting.

“I had to,” she said, speaking by phone Wednesday. “That was when the vote was occurring. We were voting on the social services grant. What other time could I have brought this up? I mean, we had to vote on it. And if you’re going to cure it, you have to cure it then.”

Per city code, when any member of the city council has a prohibited interest on a voting matter, they can voluntarily or be asked to fill out a written disclosure, including a description, of that interest. The disclosure is filed with the city manager.

Asked about the disclosure, White said he filled one out after he was “advised to do that this time, quite frankly.”

Still, Taylor maintains, “(White) knew enough to recuse himself but why did he put the allocation forth?”

“He is the one who did the improper thing,” she said. “Are we supposed to somehow sweep it under the rug and hide that this happened? And not let our taxpayers know? Or are we supposed to cure the issue, which is how do we make sure that taxpayer dollars are not going to enrich the household of someone on council.”

White’s recommended allocation to the Career & Networking Center was removed from this year’s social services grant formula as a result of Taylor’s criticism.

Requests to speak with city attorney Michael DiSanto about the matter were not returned. City spokeswoman Linda LaCloche said DiSanto’s role is to advise clients.