This week local headlines poked fun at Manassas City Mayor Hal Parrish and Coles District Supervisor Marty Nohe for getting a spot in an upcoming production of the Manassas Ballet Theater with headlines like “Manassas mayor appearing in ballet, sans leotard.” Aside from the laugh such headlines evoke (Is Mayor Hal Parrish going to dance around on a stage with his junk hanging out?) there really is a more serious issue worthy of consideration. The private entity Parrish and Nohe are lending their heretofore unproven dancing skills to is funded in part with taxpayer dollars that they have appropriated.
The Manassas Ballet Theater is a local ballet school with a professional dance company. It is an impressive organization and I am very pleased they are able to provide an opportunity for kids to explore the fine arts as well as put on some outstanding productions that enrich the community. I wish them, their students and their staff every success in the world.
I just don’t feel that my tax dollars should be given to them. They’re a private company in competition with other private companies that compete with them to attract paying students in the area. Why we decided to fund the Manassas Ballet Theater while we don’t provide public support to other dance companies like Spotlight Dance, where my daughter is a student, makes no sense at all. Government shouldn’t be picking winners in the private marketplace, and when we have to make hard choices about whether we can afford to provide our own daughter with dance lessons my taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be handed over to a different private dance school so someone else’s kid can perhaps pay a little less for their lessons.
This one ballet company gets public funding because the executive director of the Manassas Ballet, Mark Wolfe, is also head of the regional arts council that decides where public funding is allocated. Wolfe also serves as a Manassas City Councilman where he votes on the municipal budget that directs money to the arts council, which funds the Manassas ballet, which pays him a salary. Through a pretty non-circuitous route Wolfe votes on the allocation of public money that ends up in his own bank account.
This is the habitual problem that develops when we direct money from government to non-core responsibilities. Conflicts of interest develop almost immediately and preventing them is nearly impossible. I wouldn’t characterize this as corruption as everything is being done quite openly, but even when what I think is unethical behavior is done out in the open, it’s still unethical at the very least.
Under the Constitution of Virginia such behavior is also illegal, if the Virginia Constitution applies to localities the same way it applies to Richmond under the Dillon Rule, or even in spite of it. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion this year that cut off Richmond’s penchant for giving taxpayer dollars to non-state entities, but didn’t address the issue of whether localities engaging in the same behavior were running afoul of the law as well. I have an inquiry in with my local legislator to request clarification on this, and we’ll see what happens.
So Hal and Marty get a little limelight as a payback for their political and financial support using your tax dollars to support a private entity. In a few months, perhaps sooner, we’ll find out if this is the last time some of our local elected officials get paybacks from the people they send your tax dollars to.
UPDATE: I got some calls on this and have been told that the Arts Council no longer directs funding to charitable organizations but that an appointed board makes the decisions. I’ll have more on this later as I dig through the structure and organization of this panel, but it at least seems immediately clear that Mark Wolf does not personally direct any taxpayer funding to any charitable organizations.
UPDATE 2: I have a response from the Attorney General’s office that I will add to the comments on this post. Very interesting, indeed.
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