Nationwide group called into question 

A national neighborhood advocacy group that has butted heads with Daly City officials is currently under investigation by the city, which says the group’s recruitment methods could border on elder abuse.

The grassroots organization ACORN, or Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, stands by its procedures for building membership and collecting monthly dues.

City officials say ACORN members, specifically older ones, may have unknowingly given over their financial information for a monthly bank withdrawal by the community group because of solicitors going door to door and soliciting memberships at meetings.

Daly City officials and ACORN have had their encounters in the past. Last month, the group organized a meeting with Daly City’s Public Works Director Peter Gleichenhaus to talk about garbage on Mission Street, and the group organized a protest in October 2005 in the Bayshore neighborhood, clamoring for a grocery store.

In both instances, city officials said the concerns of the neighborhoods were already known and the city was acting on them.

Councilmembers said they were all for citizens raising their voices but that it was the handing over of financial information and monthly dues that worried them, saying that those raised red flags for potential elder abuse.

Mayor Maggie Gomez said the investigation by City Attorney Rose Zimmerman was not a response to protests and meetings organized by the group.

"I’m concerned about why are they charging somebody who can come directly to the council and express their concerns," Gomez said, noting that senior citizens are "easy prey" for financial scams.

"My concern is that when you go door to door and ask for people’s credit card and bank information, even if you’re completely legitimate, [a citizen] shouldn't be giving that info to anybody," said Councilwoman Judith Christensen, who said she has received complaints about ACORN practices.

Nonprofits in Daly City are not required to have a business license to solicit money, Zimmerman said. She said she is talking to the Daly City Police Department to find out if there are any penal code violations or misdemeanor infractions bordering on harassment that could come from the solicitation.

"As it stands, we don’t have any ordinance that regulates solicitation," Zimmerman said.

Established in 1970, the nonprofit has 220,000 member families across the globe and 850 neighborhood chapters in 100 U.S. cities, according to its Web site. Staff member David Sharples said that the organization has between 140-150 members in Daly City.

"Our position on this stuff is, we're not soliciting, we’re organizing," Sharples said. Members can pay between $10-$25, or whatever they can afford, per month or make a one-time payment ranging up to $240 for a two-year membership.

The monthly dues act just like union dues would, providing fliers, mailers and office space for the organizers, Sharples said.

"Basically, what we see is these city officials would prefer to not be accountable," he said.

dsmith@examiner.com

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