Herald News (Massachusetts) - by Michael Holtzman
A glossy color newsletter the city produced last fall to promote community outreach and a partner agency’s coping services during tough economic times has gained the attention of federal officials whose grant paid for its printing.
The “Neighborhood Newsletter,” as it was called, is an eight-page small-format document with a prominent photo of Mayor Will Flanagan on the cover.
At $686.96 for a run of 1,000 copies, the cost and circulation appears to have been minimal. The costs were paid through a grant awarded to Stanley Street Treatment and Resources Inc., totaling more than $4 million over four years.
But a complaint by an unidentified person about the contents led the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration to question the propriety of the newsletter.
Among the issues that stand out are multiple photos of Flanagan throughout, a box reminding citizens to vote in the Nov. 8 election and the timing of the neighborhood newsletter.
The $687 invoice from Senco Printing Inc. in Fall River is dated Oct. 21 with a printing date of Oct. 11, weeks before Flanagan’s successful re-election.
Flanagan and his community neighborhood coordinator, Perry Long, who put together the newsletter in cooperation with SSTAR’s Project Assist program, agree it was the most “professional” of three that had been done to that date. The publication was also put on the city website.
The October newsletter was also the first one distributed in the community and to some homes, and the last one to be put together as a result of the complaint, they said.
Both Flanagan and Long defended the newsletter's purpose and the city's right to use those grant funds for an outreach that included messages from Project Assist and neighborhood groups.
“I don’t believe any lines were crossed on this. The intent was to get people involved in the community,” Flanagan said this week.
“It was a potpourri of community activities,” he said. “It was flashy and high-quality. If it got one person (out of depression) or thinking about not committing suicide, then it did its job.”
Flanagan said the only involvement he had with the newsletter was providing a message about improving neighborhoods and quality of life. With another photo of him and Government Center, it took up the third page.
Long, who said newsletters not given to Project Assist for distribution were passed out in October in the South End, the Flint, Corky Row and possibly other areas, strongly defended its purpose and content.
It was not clear who passed out the newsletters.
“Our intention was to do it monthly. One of the mayor’s opponents questioned it. It was in no way campaign-related. It was an outreach for the SSTAR grant for Project Assist,” Long said.
The fourth page of the newsletter is a message from the director of the year-old Project Assist program. The message described screenings and enrollment in counseling programs and job coaching, parenting groups and other information targeted to people trying to overcome stresses, including job losses.
The last page of the distributed newsletter said the report was developed under the SAMHSA grant. Project Assist representatives said they saw the newsletter as community-oriented, not political.
“We should be doing more of this,” Long said. “If I had my way, we would have newsletters every month.”
When reminded the newsletter was published so close to the election, Long said, “If we stop providing residents with important information within an election cycle, then shame on us.”
Long, Flanagan and Michael Dion, executive director of the Community Development Agency, which funds Long’s position, acknowledged contact from a federal official associated with the SAMHSA grant.
Lisa Stallworth, a financial analyst with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said this week, “We did get information and we’re reviewing it.”
Asked about any determination, she said, “I can’t make any statements at this time. We have not made a final determination.”
Dion, however, said he spoke with Stallworth last week and offered to repay the $687 from CDA funds.
“I told SAMHSA that the city is willing to pay the money back,” said Dion, who supplied the bill upon request. He said going through a process in his busy office for that amount of money did not make sense.
Dion emphasized, “We’re not paying it back because we did something wrong” and that Stallworth “hasn’t asked us to repay it.”
He said that having participated in the meetings when the newsletter concept was put together, he believes “there was no malicious intent.”
He said listing the Nov. 8 election might be questioned.
Flanagan said he spoke with Dion about CDA paying back those grant funds. “He felt comfortable paying it. I told him ‘If you’re comfortable, pay it,’” Flanagan said.