When Laramie learned of Mayor Andi Summerville’s financial woes in August, several residents rose to the occasion and met the news by hosting a fundraiser at the Laramie Montessori Charter School.
The philanthropic response followed a notice of foreclosure posted for Summerville’s house, and her subsequent revelation she was diagnosed with a desmoid tumor about three years ago and struggling with the ensuing medical costs.
Despite the residents’ good intentions, however, the mayor, whose daughter attends Montessori, said she was declining the funds raised to help her with her medical debt, which totaled more than $6,000.
“I am very uncomfortable with being the mayor and accepting this,” Summerville said. “I don’t want them to think I’m ungrateful, so it sits in the account.”
The money was deposited in a Western States Bank account commonly referred to as the mayor’s medical fund, Councilor Pat Gabriel said. Gabriel said he and Vice Mayor Jayne Pearce set up the account to help Summerville use the funds to pay off her debt.
The idea behind Gabriel and Pearce controlling the account was the mayor would negotiate discounts with her debtors and present the discounts to Gabriel and Pearce, who would determine whether or not to release funds from the account to pay the discounted price, Gabriel said.
“As medical providers, they can write some of the debt off for tax purposes,” he said. “As of right now, (Summerville) has not requested any of the funds.”
Having decided not to accept the funds, Summerville said she would not be part of the process of determining how the funds should be returned.
“It will really put the burden back on the account holders and Montessori to decide what to do with that money,” she said. “I’m not going to be part of those discussions.”
Organized by the Montessori Parent Teacher Organization, the school hosted a carnival Oct. 19 to raise funds for the mayor’s medical debt, a Montessori news release states.
While a school representative was not available for comment, the school provided details about the event via email.
“Andi is an amazing person,” Montessori Director and Principal Mark Crawford writes. “She is a great mom and an outstanding leader in our community. She was humble and ambivalent about this event as she did not want to draw any attention to her situation.”
The carnival consisted of live music, games and a dessert auction and all the proceeds were donated to Summerville, Crawford writes.
“We obtained a city permit to block off Fourth Street in front of the school,” he writes. “Double Dubs and Bear Bait — these food trucks came and a (percentage) of their sales went towards the fundraiser.”
Additionally, about 90 percent of Montessori’s faculty and approximately six families without ties to Montessori were present for the carnival, Crawford writes.
“It was a true community event,” he writes.
Summerville said she was touched by the heartfelt efforts of the school and community.
“I live in such an amazing place,” she said. “I didn’t think I could love Laramie any more than I already did. I was overwhelmed by this response. For me personally, I don’t think I’m special in regards of what’s going on. There’s so many other people that have the same if not worse problems that I do.”
While Summerville said she was proud to see the community come together in support of someone in need, she could not accept the donations as an elected official.
“Several organizations offered to do fundraising for me — my answer was no,” she said. “I didn’t want the attention, but at the end of the day, people will do what they want.”
Is it legal?
Rules regarding donations to elected officials for purposes other than campaign finance at first appear clearly stated in Wyoming statute, but upon further inspection can be a gray area.
“No public official, public member or public employee shall use his office or position for his private benefit,” Wyoming statute 9-13-103 states. “‘Private benefit’ means the receipt by the public official, public member or public employee of a gift which resulted from his holding that office.”
At first glance, Summerville’s fundraiser might appear strictly forbidden, but when the statute defines gift, the situation becomes less clear.
According to state statute, the meaning of gift excludes a gift, devise or inheritance from any person, including an organization, which has “a bona fide social or private business relationship with the individual, where the circumstances demonstrate that the motivation for the gift arises out of that relationship and not from the recipient’s holding of public office or employment.”
Wyoming Secretary of State Public Information and Communications Officer Will Dinneen replied to a request for comment regarding the legality of Summerville’s case with a list of state statutes and suggested Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael could clarify how the statute should be interpreted.
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, an attorney who survived breast cancer, said he was unfamiliar with how the statute would be interpreted in Summerville’s case, but also suggested Michael could best speak to the issue.
Michael declined an interview, but replied “our office is not authorized to give legal advice to private individuals” in an email.
Gabriel said he did not research the legality of the fundraiser or bank account.
“I don’t know if they should change (the statute) or clarify it for situations like this,” Summerville said. “I think that when you get into an elected official position, you just take on certain things. I’m not sure that if the state statute said that it was OK … I’m still not sure I would take the money.”
The next step
With the legality of the donations in question and Summerville’s reservations about accepting them as an elected official, Gabriel said he would try to return them.
“We have decided to disband the mayor medical fund at Western States Bank,” he said. “The vice mayor and I decided we would contact the people who donated the money and ask if they would like it back or donate the money elsewhere.”
Because a large portion of the funds were donated anonymously during the fundraising event, Gabriel said he has been in contact with Montessori staff to determine how best to return anonymous donations.
“A lot of that money came in anonymous, so the Montessori board will looking at what to do with the money,” he said.
Gabriel said Thursday he had yet to hear back from the school..
“We didn’t consult with (Summerville) about setting up this fund, we just did it after hearing about the Montessori fundraiser,” he said. “It was just kind of a spur of the moment deal when I set it up. But it allowed people who couldn’t make it to the Montessori event a way to donate the money after the fact.”
Thus far, he said he returned two donation checks and donated another $600 from the fund to the Laramie Downtown Clinic as per the donors’ wishes.
If he had to do it all over again, Gabriel said he would have talked to the mayor before creating the account.
“After the fund was set up, we let her know and she was thinking about for a bit,” he said. “So I don’t know if talking to her before setting up the account would have avoided returning the donations.”
Summerville said she hoped declining the donations would not turn people away from helping those in need.
“To get the point across that you care, it doesn’t have to be directed at the individual,” she said. “There are many good organizations in Laramie that could use the donations to help people in our community.”
As medical debt grows across the nation, Summerville said she would like to see the community rally against the problem.
“There are several things people can do to lift everyone up, not just individuals,” she said. “There are so many people living one medical diagnosis away from bankruptcy. This will continue to plague our society for years to come.”