Amid eight-monthlong audit into South Salt Lake funding, Promise after-school program changes leaders

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Promise South Salt Lake Site Coordinator Susie Estrada shows children pictures of the staff members at the Hser Ner Moo Community Center in South Salt Lake City Tuesday, July 18, 2017. The Promise before and after-school program has new leadership, amid an audit into South Salt Lake City funding that began back in June.

A before- and after-school program in South Salt Lake has new leadership, amid an ongoing audit looking into questions raised last year about whether public funds were being diverted to Mayor Cherie Wood’s 2017 re-election campaign.

Kari Cutler — a city contractor who simultaneously ran the Promise South Salt Lake program and Wood’s political action committee (PAC), including through the 2013 election — said her decision to leave the program at the end of last year was unrelated to the audit.

“I will always believe that the good work finds a way, and am so grateful to have been involved in Promise South Salt Lake leadership for so long,” she said in an email statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “I will always love and do what I can to help Promise South Salt Lake and the children and families it serves.”

Former Promise Deputy Director Kelli Meranda will now take over leadership of the Promise program.

Meanwhile, Cutler said she’s pursuing opportunities to address issues of “mental health, substance abuse and literacy, all of which contribute to poverty, homelessness and other challenges we are facing in all of our communities.”

Wood said in an email that she was “disappointed” to see Cutler leave the Promise program and noted she’d done “an excellent job building our program and serving our residents.” She said Meranda “is doing a great job.”

“I hope my residents know that they still have the full support of my administration in advancing the goals of the Promise program,” she said.

The city had paid Social Marketing Consultants, the contract firm run by Cutler and her husband, Jack Wilbur, $1.3 million over the past five years. Cutler is still employed by South Salt Lake and is continuing to work on a number of grant writing proposals, Wood said.

Council members Mark Kindred and Shane Siwik, who were running for Wood’s mayoral seat at the time, raised questions last June about Cutler’s many roles in the city and the potential conflict of interest that may arise from her assistance with Wood’s campaign. Cutler resigned from the PAC soon after the issue came up in a council meeting.

At Wood’s direction, South Salt Lake hired an outside auditor soon afterward to look into the issue.

Councilman Ben Pender, who has been overseeing the audit, originally estimated the audit would take three weeks. Eight months later, it remains unfinished.

Pender told The Tribune in November that it had taken longer than expected to get information from the mayor’s office and Social Marketing Consultants — both of which said they had been fully cooperating.

But Pender noted Friday that things have been moving more quickly over the past few months and said he expects the audit to be completed by the beginning of April.

Though Pender said he didn’t know the total cost of the audit to the city, he noted that information would become publicly available, as would the findings of the audit, once the process is completed.