SIOUX CITY | Spurred by a conflict-of-interest finding, Woodbury County Board members on Tuesday vowed to create a more open process for giving taxpayer money to nonprofit agencies.

In a legal opinion dated Oct. 21, County Attorney P.J. Jennings wrote that giving public funds to the agency headed by board Chairman George Boykin without more stringent documentation poses a conflict of interest.

"It is all about being fair to everyone," Jennings told the board during the public comment portion at the end of Tuesday's regular meeting.

The opinion says no more payments should be made to the Sanford Community Center, where Boykin is executive director. County Finance Director Dennis Butler said past money paid over the years to the Sanford Center does not have to be repaid.

Boykin would seek to make changes so the agency can still receive money for a gang prevention program that currently serves more than 300 people. Without the county money, as many as five positions could be cut within two months.

"I am pretty emotional about it. This program has been in existence since 1992. We have served thousands of youngsters," Boykin said after the meeting.

Jennings started researching the issue Sept. 16 after County Auditor Pat Gill protested a bill for more than $15,000 from the Sanford Center. Gill said there wasn't a contract authorizing payment.

Jennings' opinion says the key point is an interpretation of Iowa Code 331.342 on conflicts of interest. The code says "an officer or employee of a county shall not have an interest, direct or indirect, in a contract with a county. A contract entered into in violation of this section is void."

Jennings said Boykin "does receive an interest, whether it is direct or indirect," when county money goes to Sanford.

Jennings determined that without a competitive bidding process, the county can't pay any money to Sanford, but he opened a door for the agency to get back in line for funds under Boykin's leadership.

Jennings wrote in his opinion: "It is clear that even in some cases where a conflict of interest might exist, such as the one at question here, when the award of monies by the county is done according to the appropriate competitive bidding process, commonly referred to as RFP-Request for Proposal, there is no violation of the statutory laws of the state of Iowa."

The Woodbury County Prevention Commission for At-Risk Youth was created in 2011 to address issues that affect young people. The commission, which includes one County Board member, uses benchmarks and reviews financial documents each year to determine which organizations should receive a pool of money for social programs, such as gang prevention.

Since its creation, the commission has recommended its entire share be awarded to the Sanford Center and its Gang Outreach Program. The County Board takes final action on the commission's recommendation in making an annual funding decision each March.

The amount awarded this year is $186,925.

Boykin in 2014 and prior years has abstained from the board's funding decisions for the Sanford Center.

"The fact that Mr. Boykin abstained from the selection decision also does not validate the incorrect process used," Jennings wrote.

Boykin said he was devastated to hear Jennings' legal opinion. If no county money comes to the agency within two months, Boykin said, he would have to lay off three to five employees.

"Our agency lives by month to month, like everybody else. We don't have a huge (budget) reserve," Boykin said.

The Prevention Commission's next meeting is scheduled Wednesday. Jackie Smith, the County Board's member on the panel, said the group will discuss setting up a Request for Proposal process to settle a contract with the proper safeguards for gang prevention services.

Smith said other agencies besides the Sanford Center could seek a contract.

"To cut off services midstream because we made an error four years ago is really sad," she said.

Smith and County Board member Larry Clausen said county officials will make changes to meet the requirements laid out by Jennings.

"It is not really a problem. It has just got to be corrected," Clausen said.

Jennings said rendering the opinion was difficult because he's seen good outcomes from the Sanford program.

"It is a bad deal, it is unfortunate," he said.

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County and education reporter

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