MANCHESTER — A former member of the Manchester Dog Park Association sought a review of its legal status from the state Attorney General's Office, but the leaders of the group say the scrutiny is a result of election season politics.
Jon Hopwood, a former user of the park, requested that the AG's Charitable Trusts Unit investigate the MDPA, saying among other things that it appeared to be raising funds through its website.
Hopwood also wrote a letter to the AG's Public Integrity and Economic Crime Unit, according to a recent column he posted on Yahoo.com.
"It is my belief that the MDPA board has failed to file for tax-exempt status (after promising for over a year to do so) in order to keep their personal control over what is really a public facility and that this may constitute political corruption," Hopwood wrote in the post.
Hopwood declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did communicate via email.
The dog park, dubbed Peanut Park, is located on Bass Island off Second Street on the West Side. It opened a few years ago as the city's first off-leash dog park. It's a 10,000-square-foot patch of land owned by the city, which the MDPA is allowed to use under an agreement approved by the aldermen in 2010.
The project was the initiative of Alderman Phil Greazzo, the representative for Ward 10, and he's used his own money and time to build and maintain the park. Both Greazzo and Tammy Simmons, a former Republican state representative and the interim chair of the city Republican Committee, have proudly pointed to the park as an example of what citizens can accomplish without government money. Greazzo and Simmons are members of the MDPA's executive board.
Since its opening, a faction of dog park users have emerged that have pushed for more amenities at the park, and they've also called on the MDPA to properly register with the IRS as a nonprofit, so it could do fundraising.
Greazzo said for the most part people are pleased with the park. He said there are a only a few disgruntled people, and he described Hopwood as a "political operative from the other party."
"You need to have an understanding that there's an election happening in a few weeks," Greazzo said. "We have a free dog park for Manchester. A few guys who are not even members are making these troubles."
Hopwood acknowledges that he's a supporter of Patrick Arnold, the Democratic alderman taking on Mayor Ted Gatsas. He's also met with and shared his concerns with Bill Barry, the Democrat challenging Greazzo for the Ward 10 seat, and he has a sign for him on his lawn.
Hopwood insists his concerns about the dog park are not based on politics; he says he voted for Greazzo in the last two elections, and he said he waited to raise the issue of the MDPA with the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, adding he doesn't expect the board to take up the matter until after the election.
Greazzo on Wednesday met with an investigator in the Charitable Trusts Unit, which sent a letter to the MDPA in response to Hopwood's complaint that the group is not registered as a public charity.
The investigator, Christine Gauntt, said her office asked the MDPA to furnish more paperwork, but she said it appeared that the group was operating appropriately. "Not all nonprofits are required to register here as they are not charities. This looks like the case with the MDPA," Gauntt wrote in an email.
She noted that her office has no jurisdiction over websites that take in donations. The MDPA has a "donate" button on its website, but the group has said this is used to pay dues.
Greazzo and Simmons have indicated that they support the goal of getting federal nonprofit status as a 501(c)3. But Greazzo said given the complaints the MDPA has gotten from some, he would question the wisdom and expense of seeking tax-exempt status, which he would want to have lawyer handle. "What point is there in moving forward? We'll operate as we were. We'll have a voluntary membership that pays the insurance," he said.
The dog park users pay $10 a year in dues, to cover the cost of insurance and dog tags that indicate someone has paid to use the park. The park is not supervised; the MDPA relies on the honor system for users to pay dues, and the members are responsible for cleaning up after their dogs and keeping the space clean.
Hopwood and other critics of the MDPA have also charged that it is run by Greazzo and Republican allies who are unwilling to cede control. Besides Greazzo and Simmons, the original officers of the MDPA are Matthew Swank and Michael Ball, who have been active in the local Republican party, and Daniel Garthwaite, a supporter of the Free State Project.
Greazzo insisted that the group holds annual meetings for its members, where it presents its financial information. He also noted another member, not affiliated with the original group or the Republican party, was recently allowed to join the board, Kevin Roux.
Roux did not return a call for comment.
Simmons said the organization was established based on certain principles. "I know it might seem odd to have a self-perpetuating board," she said. "I personally don't want to see people (joining the board) who think the solution is to seek money from the taxpayer."
Referring to some of the complaints that have surfaced, Simmons added, "I wish more adults could be as happy as the dogs are."