Statement: “We were prohibited from any major fund-raising activities,” Tom Hebrank, chairman of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group, told the Union-Tribune for a story published Jan. 12.
Analysis: Before some business owners can open shop, their application must be reviewed by a neighborhood planning group. The volunteer residents study the proposals and advise the city on whether to ultimately approve it.
Most planning groups meet each month to discuss these proposals and other issues like street conditions or long-term development. But earlier this month, the planning group that covers Kensington and Talmadge found itself without a place to meet.
The Kensington Community Church, where the group gathered for 15 years, raised its prices for meeting rooms from $25 to $150 per month. The increase stirred a small buzz within the neighborhood and then spilled into the Union-Tribune.
Church leaders said they needed to raise the rates to balance growing costs. Planning group leaders called the rates too steep and pressured the church for an exemption. Without lower prices, they argued, the planning group would have to relocate to facilities farther away from the neighborhood’s core.
“I approached them and explained that we were a city-affiliated planning group, we were prohibited from any major fund-raising activities and asked if they would accept a smaller rent amount for us,” Hebrank, the planning group’s chairman, told the Union-Tribune.
In fact, no city law would have prohibited the planning group from collecting donations to offset the increased rent, city officials confirmed. As long as contributions are voluntary and don’t present a conflict of interest, they’re OK to accept.
When we called Hebrank about the discrepancy, he said other planning group members told him they couldn’t accept major donations. Hebrank said he had proposed fundraising at the community’s Memorial Day parade and other members adamantly argued that it was not allowed.
But the other members’ assertions were unfounded.
Although community planning groups play a low-profile, volunteer role in city affairs, we ran this statement through the Fact Check simply to learn more about their inner workings and the little-known rules they follow. When we first read the Union-Tribune article, we had no idea whether Hebrank’s description was true or false, and we were curious to figure out the answer. The idea wasn’t to ding Hebrank but rather explain an issue in the news and make sure the correct information is in the public domain.
For sure, fundraising is generally a small part of what planning groups do. Since it’s primarily used for minor administrative costs like paper copies, websites and rent, the budget typically hovers around a few hundred dollars. When funding runs low, groups pass around a collection envelope at meetings.
The funding is normally so small that city planners who oversee the groups don’t track it. A member of the planning group typically volunteers to be its treasurer.
Even with the ability to fundraise, Hebrank said the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group has moved on from its longtime meeting place. It’s now discussing whether to hold regular meetings at Hoover High School, which charges no rent, and Franklin Elementary School, which charges $10 per month. Both schools are still within the neighborhoods.
“We’re not in the business to be fundraising,” Hebrank said about the move. “If we can meet at a school for little to no cost, then that’s going to be our first choice.”
For its part, the Kensington Community Church doesn’t hold any bad blood. If the planning group wants to come back and pay the new rates, it’s welcome to apply, said Sheryl Chafee, chairwoman of the church’s board of trustees.
“I was really surprised when everything became news and somehow it became we ended on a bad note,” Chafee said. “We’re certainly willing to have the conversation.”