by Kimberly Rivers
At the Sept. 15 meeting of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, a discussion occurred indicating the possibility that the county will withhold funding for the next round of grants through the Business Assistance Grant program being administered by the Ventura County Community Foundation (VCCF) until the names of businesses that have received funding have been provided.
Officials with VCCF say that because the federally funded grants are $5,000 each, they fall below the public reporting threshold and are not required to be reported. So far 777 grant checks have been mailed out to qualified small businesses in the county, totaling just over $3.8 million. A VCCF spokesperson confirms that an additional 10 businesses have qualified but that checks have not gone out yet.
Since at least Sept. 1, the supervisors have been asking staff to release a list of the businesses who have received the Rapid Response grants, and county staff have responded that VCCF is declining to provide that information.
On Sept. 15, Supervisor Steve Bennett (Dist. 1) suggested that the county withhold funding for the next grant cycle until VCCF releases the requested information. Since that action was not an agendized item, the supervisors could not vote or authorize the course of action. County staff indicated they were working to get the information from VCCF. Bennett said they could add that item to the agenda at any time, and that if a recipient of the funds doesn’t want the information released they can “give the money back.”
Supervisor Kelly Long (Dist. 3) emphasized the importance of “transparency” in the process and mentioned that the program is likely to be audited.
Supervisors understood that the information they were seeking to be released was a matter of public record because the funds come from federal taxpayer dollars through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act.
“VCCF’s objection to releasing the names of the recipients applies only with respect to the initial grant recipients because they had an expectation that their names would not be released,” said William Choi, a partner at Rodriguez, Horii, Choi and Cafferata, a Los Angeles-based law firm, responding via email on behalf of VCCF. He said VCCF would not object to releasing information in the future, “provided that the recipients, at the time they applied for the grant (or prior to receiving the grant, if selected), were given fair notice that their names would be released to the public if they are awarded the grant.” He pointed out that VCCF, as part of the application process, collects personal, financial and “other proprietary” information from applicants, “and protecting such information is of utmost importance to VCCF.”
VCCF is a nonprofit organization that works to support other area nonprofits and philanthropic activity in Ventura County.
“VCCF disagrees with the County’s assertion that it needs to be provided a list of the recipients in order to comply with federal auditing requirements,” Choi said, explaining that VCCF can meet any federal auditing requirements “by VCCF’s auditors performing the necessary auditing procedures and providing an opinion on whether all required standards have been met.” He noted that “the County and its independent auditors are welcome to double check VCCF’s auditor’s work, at VCCF’s office at a mutually convenient time. Absent a provision in the agreement with VCCF, however, the County is not entitled to copy and retain the underlying data (including the names of the grant recipients).”
Choi went on to clarify that pursuant to the CARES Act, only information about businesses that receive over $150,000 must be made public and that in the Ventura County program, “only very small businesses qualified for the CARES Act funding in question, and the grant amounts were $5,000 each.” He said in this case, “The federal government has not imposed a requirement to release the names of the recipients of these grants…This exception for the smaller businesses…indicates an intention by the federal government to balance the public’s right to know with the recipient’s right to privacy.”
According to Choi, a majority of the recipients of the grants are women and people of color. “Many of them have expressed concerns that publicly disclosing their business as a recipient…may indicate to current and future customers that they are struggling, too small and perhaps not capable of handling larger or more complicated orders or jobs…Disclosure of the grant recipients, therefore (in particular where they were given an expectation of privacy), may hurt the very small businesses that the grants were intended to help.”
At the Sept. 22 Ventura County Board of Supervisors meeting it was reported that legal counsel from the county and VCCF were meeting.