Welcome to Donnawood

A west Phoenix neighborhood pays the way for activist Donna Neill to gain control. But who gets stuck with the final bill?

At the February 2000 meeting, for instance, Neill talked about bills moving through the state Legislature; she spoke about an upcoming meeting with County Attorney Romley; she alerted people to a memorial service for a state Department of Public Service officer; and she asked for money to fund activities sponsored by the Westwood Community Association.

Neill said at the meeting she had received $500 from a local mechanic. Some of that money was donated directly to Donna and Jerry Neill to cover "operating expenses," according to the meeting minutes.

There is no record of the donation, as the community association did not file a tax return for the year 2000. However, none of the tax returns previously submitted to the IRS list any "operating expenses" incurred.

Financial documents show little of the money received by Donna Neill's nonprofit Westwood Community Association. Community activist Paul Enniss' letter to the city addresses such concerns.
Enlarge Documents
Financial documents show little of the money received by Donna Neill's nonprofit Westwood Community Association. Community activist Paul Enniss' letter to the city addresses such concerns.

Enlarge Documents

Donna Neill, during an interview with New Times, says that there are times when her organization receives money meant for its general fund. That includes donations to the Westwood Community Association that are not earmarked for a specific cause. Some of those funds, she says, have been used to pay for events other than those promoted by the community association.

In those cases, Neill says, the four-member community association board decides how to spend the money.

Former board members, however, admit limited involvement in deciding how the charity conducts its business.

"I just took the minutes. I didn't express opinions," says former Westwood secretary Shirley Wilson, who spent a year on the board. "The only input that I had was to say, 'Wait a minute. We need to know who made the motion, who seconded the motion.'"

With the Westwood Business Alliance thriving, Neill was able to focus on what she considered a main objective in her community: the creation of a neighborhood park.

The idea began in 1994 when Neill first started working with Childress and Tanner. She showed them statistics for the neighborhood -- the number of rental properties compared to owner-occupied homes, the number of children attending Westwood Primary School, the number of families who didn't own a vehicle and could not walk to other city parks in adjacent neighborhoods.

By year's end, the three had created a memorial fund to accept donations to build a community park in honor of Kon Hawk, a neighborhood convenience store clerk slain during a robbery.

While Neill says today that the memorial fund never generated any donations, documents show that at least $8,000 was raised. Neill disputes that any money was raised, and financial records do not reflect the money ever being reported.

Tanner says the three eventually approached the city for help.

"When we first went, [we were] basically told, 'There's a lot of neighborhoods that want a park. Get in line,'" Tanner says.

By 1996, the city agreed to buy a piece of overgrown property on 23rd Avenue between Indian School and Camelback. The land, which sat directly across from Sundowner Apartments, held farm animals and an old still.

With the land locked up, the next step was to develop it.

In 1997, when Phil Gordon was considering a run for the soon-to-be-vacated City Council District 4 seat, he met with Neill.

She told him about her dream for a park, Gordon says. He promised to help make it happen.

"I said, 'I will make that my top priority,'" Gordon recalls telling Neill. "I felt that was important we do that."

The city eventually put the burden of fund raising on Neill and her partners, however.

Tanner says his family business pitched in several donations of more than $1,000, as well as one significant gift of $10,000. Other residents assisted, including Westwood resident Ralph Breninger, who says he gave $5,000.

Breninger's donation, however, is listed on Westwood's 1999 tax return as being $11,105. Jerry Neill attributes the accounting error to a computer glitch, which he says wiped out some of the charity's financial records. Jerry Neill admits that Breninger did not give $11,105; he says the bulk of that money came from Mike Tanner, although records do not reflect that.

As donations came in for the park, Neill began pushing to build a community center. The center, she says, will be named after slain Phoenix police officer Marc Atkinson, who was killed in 1999 as he pursued suspected drug dealers.

Gordon says he pitched Neill's idea to Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, as well as the police.

The police department and the County Attorney's Office offered donations of $7,500 and $20,000, respectively, to aid creation of the Atkinson center.

It was one of three donations Neill has received from Romley's office.

"She has become an ally," Romley says. "Some elected officials fail to understand the importance of issues to the community. She takes it to them. She expresses exactly what is going on in their neighborhoods."

Romley says Neill is persuasive because she is passionate about the causes she champions.

"Everybody ruffles feathers. She seems to be able to get away with it a little more because of her sincerity," he says, "her passion."

Of the three donations from Romley's office to Neill's organization, only one -- the $20,000 parks donation -- was reported to the IRS. Two other grants for $5,000 and $10,000 do not appear on any Westwood financial statement.

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