A three-and-a-half year old contribution emerged as a major point of contention at a meeting of the Riverside-Brookfield High School Booster Club last week. In 2006 the RB Booster Club contributed a total of $15,800 to Citizens for Riverside-Brookfield High School, a campaign committee formed to advocate for the approval of the $58.9 bond referendum to fund the expansion and renovation of RB that is just about completed.
Most of that money was used to pay a St. Louis-based consulting company for advice and help that it provided during the referendum campaign.
At last week’s Booster Club meeting, Riverside resident and former village trustee Jerry Buttimer made a motion calling for the Boosters to, among other things, ban all political contributions with Booster funds and also asked for the return within 30 days of all political contributions made by the Boosters in the past.
“Our contributions to the Boosters Club are to supplement our kids’ sports activities,” Buttimer said. “It’s not to be going to a political committee. That’s the crux of what’s wrong with it. You underwrote a political committee to hire a political consulting firm to pass the referendum.”
Prior to the meeting Buttimer e-mailed a YouTube video to many Booster Club members outlining a litany of complaints about how the Boosters have been run, including allegations that proper tax forms had not been filed for years.
Buttimer’s motion was seconded by former District 208 school board candidate Chris Robling, who said he was attending his first Booster Club meeting. It turned out that Robling was not a member of the Booster Club, so his second of Buttimer’s motion was not allowed. Robling whipped out his checkbook and wrote a $75 check to the Boosters and joined on the spot, but it was decided to table Buttimer’s motion until the January meeting.
Buttimer’s complaints drew heated responses from many Booster Club members, including club president Gary Zeleny, who defended the Boosters’ contribution to Citizens for Riverside Brookfield High School.
“I proud that we were able to help get the referendum passed,” said Zeleny, who state records indicate served as the treasurer of the Citizens for RBHS committee. “I’m glad the Booster Club had a part in getting the school the biggest advance in sports facilities since the school was built.
“We’ve got a phenomenal brand-new school, a fieldhouse, our athletic field. Why wouldn’t the Booster Club do all it could to get that passed. There was nothing done secretly.
“I’d do it again. I think it was a great investment.”
State campaign records indicate that the RB Booster Club made three separate donations to the campaign committee pushing the referendum and that the biggest contribution came nearly two months after the March 21, 2006 vote.
Most of the money contributed by the Boosters went to pay Unicom ARC, a consulting firm that specializes in helping school districts and local governments pass referendums.
Former school board member Bill McCloskey was the chairman of Citizens for Riverside-Brookfield High School. McCloskey said that Unicom ARC produced campaign materials and the company was reimbursed by the campaign committee after the election.
Citizens for RB paid Unicom ARC a total of $13,821.50 according to state campaign records. All of it after the election. On April 8, 2006 citizens for RB paid the firm $6,000, and it paid the firm another $7,821.51 on June 1, 2006 for what was listed as “consulting.”
The campaign committee raised a total of $29,243 for the referendum campaign, more than half of it coming from the Boosters.
The RB Music Sponsors contributed $1,500 and the RB Otters Swim Club contributed $500 to Citizens for RBHS. Both those contributions were made prior to the election.
Citizens for RBHS disbanded after returning its leftover cash, $514.75, to the Booster Club on Sept. 22, 2006 according to state records.
Buttimer, who said that he voted for and supported the referendum, said that the Boosters held itself out to be a tax exempt organization, which he said are prohibited from making campaign contributions.
According to Internal Revenue Service regulations, 501c3 Tax Exempt Organizations are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
Zeleny said that since the Boosters contributed to a campaign committee that was supporting a school bond referendum, not a political candidate, the Boosters did not violate this rule.
In any case, it appears that the Booster Club was not officially a tax-exempt organization in 2006, because for a number of years it failed to file the required forms with the state and the IRS.
“We weren’t an official not-for-profit at the time,” Zeleny said. But Booster Club members were often advised that their Booster Club dues were tax deductible contributions, Zeleny said.
A spokesman from the IRS said that he could not comment on whether a contribution to a referendum campaign committee by a tax-exempt organization is allowed under IRS rules.
Another part of Buttimer’s motion called upon the Boosters to file all past-due annual reports and forms that are required to be certified as a tax-exempt organization. Zeleny conceded that the Boosters have been lax in that, but said that they have hired someone to take care of the required filings.
“We were remiss in that,” Zeleny said. “I admit it. It’s in the process of being addressed. … We were just running it the way it’s always been run.”
Some Booster Club members said that that instead of always criticizing, Buttimer should get more involved in the Boosters.
“I would still love for you to come in and help us,” Zeleny said. “You could channel your energy into a really positive thing. I’m prepared to nominate you for president.”
A day later Buttimer seemed skeptical that the offer from his old friend was sincere.
“I would think if they’re sincere in their desire to get things fixed I will hear from them,” Buttimer said. “They would love for me to accept the position and then sandbag me and try to embarrass me.”
Other boosters at the meeting were angry. They said Buttimer and Robling complain, but they never roll up their sleeves and do any work.
“Look at all the hours we put into this and they’re making a joke of it,” said former school board member Marty Crowley who is a very active Boosters volunteer.
“You two guys come in and make all the accusations, get this, get this, get this and get this and then go home. I don’t understand it.”
Booster club member Karen Miller said that she had never met Buttimer before.
“I thought you were an enigma,” Miller said. “I find it insulting.”