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A How-To Guide to Sponsoring Summer Celebrations


June 14, 2018 by Flannary Collins
Category: Gift of Public Funds

A How-To Guide to Sponsoring Summer Celebrations

Summer invites a celebration, with the long summer nights, the dry, warm weather, and the community spirit in full swing. Cities, counties, and other municipalities like to join in the summertime fun by organizing community celebrations and events, such as carnivals, parades, outdoor basketball tournaments, and music in the park.  

While municipalities can sponsor such events, they do need to be mindful of the gift of public funds prohibition contained in article 8, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution:

No county, city, town or other municipal corporation shall hereafter give any money, or property, or loan its money, or credit to or in aid of any individual, association, company or corporation, except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm . . . .

Avoiding Gifts of Public Funds

When evaluating whether public expenditures on community events are impermissible gifts of public funds, the state auditor’s office refers to and relies upon Eating and Drinking at Public Expense, a 1987 memorandum written by former Senior Assistant Attorney General James Pharris, which still provides excellent guidance on this issue, even 30 years later.

As detailed in the memorandum, the following three factors determine the legality of a municipality’s expenditure on a celebratory event: Does the event match the purposes/power of the jurisdiction, is it for a valid purpose, and what role does the jurisdiction play in the event?

Does the celebration match the powers and purposes of the municipality?

Cities and counties, as general governments with broad powers, can more appropriately sponsor community celebrations (such as parades and festivals) than smaller special purpose districts whose purposes are more focused and limited.

Is the celebration for a valid municipal purpose?

For example, valid municipal purposes could be strengthening a city’s sense of community or celebrating a county’s history.

Is the municipality the main sponsor or a cosponsor?

If a cosponsor, keep in mind that the municipality’s sponsorship of the celebration cannot be in the form of a gratuitous contribution to a private organization. To protect against this, the municipality should enter into a contract with the other sponsor(s) detailing the terms of the cosponsorship, including funding, and distribution of duties and responsibilities for management and operation of the event.

Tips to Consider

To ensure your summer celebration goes off without a constitutional hitch, we recommend that your municipality take the following steps:

Step 1: Adopt a resolution about the celebration.

The resolution should describe the event’s valid municipal purpose, and identify the municipality’s role in the event. Here are a few good examples:

Step 2: Invite the public.

Limiting attendance to just councilmembers and staff is really a private celebration, thus defeating the valid municipal purpose requirement.

Step 3: Kick your feet up and take it easy!

Your work resulted in a great event for your community. Time to celebrate!

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about summer community celebrations, parades, or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post or other topics you would like us to write about, please email me.

About Flannary Collins

Flannary's legal background is in local government law. She joined MRSC in 2013 after serving 10 years as assistant city attorney at the City of Shoreline, where she advised all city departments. At MRSC, Flannary provides advice to municipalities on a wide range of legal issues, including public records, public works, and land use.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Flannary Collins

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