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Naperville council open to changing community grant approval process after last month’s fight between members

Naperville council open to changing community grant approval process after last month’s fight between members

The Naperville City Council may alter its community grant program after it provoked a disagreement over current practices and resulted in elected officials openly fighting with one another at a meeting last month.

Council members Tuesday expressed interest in revising the annually awarded Social Services Grant program so that only an independent committee would decide how the money was distributed, eliminating a provision in which council members are given a discretionary say in the allocations. That part of the process has been in place since the program was established two decades ago.

The shift comes after Councilwoman Jennifer Bruzan Taylor last month objected to Councilman Benny White recommending social services grant funding to an organization at which his wife, Kim White, is the executive director.

Concerned with an appearance of impropriety, Taylor asked the council to reduce the organization’s grant and the council obliged.

But the matter incited surprise, debate and calls of politicking from other members. White dismissed the notion as “totally inappropriate” to bring up at a public forum, while Taylor maintained it was an issue that needed to be addressed.

To do away with any room for question going forward, Taylor suggested under new business this week that social services grant allocations be decided by committee only, subject to final review by the council. City staff members were directed to bring changes back for council consideration at a future meeting.

Naperville established the Social Services Grant program in 2005 as a resource to help local nonprofit agencies provide needed services to the community. Funding comes from the city’s food and beverage tax.

Typically, grant funding has been allocated through a mix of recommendations from both an independent review committee and council members, with committee allocations accounting for a much larger portion of funding amounts. For 2024, there was $500,000 available for disbursement, with committee recommendations deciding $400,000 of the total pool and council members deciding the rest. Member recommendations are confidential.

With Taylor’s proposal, council members would no longer have that input.

Rather, if a council member wants to change any allocation, they would have to request it publicly and the council would have to agree, Taylor said Thursday.

“I think it makes everything transparent,” she said.

On Tuesday, White briefly spoke in defense of himself and his wife’s organization, the Career & Networking Center, before saying he was “committed to moving forward and focusing on the important work (that) the voters of Naperville elected me to do.”

Kim White also appeared Tuesday to speak on behalf of her organization.

“It is disheartening to witness how political approving the social grants process has become,” she said. “Constructing narratives filled with falsehoods may offer momentary satisfaction to some, but it tarnishes the reputation of an organization.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, Naperville Scott Wehrli said, “Any good board is going to have some differences of opinion and that’s OK as long as we do it with respect for one another at the dais and with respect to the residents that are in the audience and our professional staff who have to come to work every day. Those things are very important to me.”

Since last month, he said, he has had conversations with every council member to “reemphasize our expectations and things I’d like to make sure we keep in mind as we go forward.”

“All of them received that information very well,” he said.

tkenny@chicagotribune.com