Thursday evening a number of arts organizations around King County received an alarming e-mail concerning a recent piece of legislation that will be introduced by a group of six King County council members on Monday. The subject line read: "King County to Dissolve 4Culture..."
The e-mail was sent by Advocate4Culture, which describes itself as "a coalition of more than 800 organizations and individuals...dedicated to ensuring the survival of 4Culture," and they're worried the proposed bill amounts to a council takeover of the organization.
For those who don't need arts grants to eat: Every year 4Culture distributes millions of dollars in grants and scholarships to hundreds of artists and institutions in King County. Projects fall into four major categories: "arts, heritage, historic preservation, and public art." In order to determine who gets that money, 4Culture selects community members and artists from each of those worlds to serve on panels. Those panelists choose which projects deserve the funding that year based on merit and other guidelines involving social equity and geographic diversity.
"Dissolving" this institution would decimate cultural production and preservation in the county, but it doesn't look like the county is trying to dissolve anything. The six council members who introduced the legislation, however, do want more control over the organization.
Though 4Culture runs on public funds, during a budget crisis in 2003, King County allowed the agency to separate from the government and operate as an Independent Public Development Authority. They are required to report their budget and programs to the council, but the council doesn't have any real control over how they spend the money.
The new bill gives the council the power to veto 4Culture's budget, appoint board members after the current ones have served their terms, and hire/fire the executive director, but only after a public hearing. It's sponsored by Dave Upthegrove, Reagan Dunn, Larry Gossett, Kathy Lambert, Rod Dembowski, Pete von Reichbauer.
It's hard to get tooooo mad about this proposal, but it looks like the council is trying to add an extra layer of bureaucracy that helps them at the expense of art. They want to put whoever they want on the board, they want 4Culture's executive director to report to them AND the board they're appointing, and they want more say in where the money goes—if not for specific grants, then definitely for specific districts.
In a statement, King County Council Member David Upthegrove (one of the motherfuckers who didn't support Access for All last year) says Advocate4Culture's e-mail was hyperbolic, and claims it's "disservice to those of us who reject DC-style, 140 character attempts to destroy meaningful, honest dialogue."
He goes on to say that 4Culture's funding will "increase by more than $13 million per year" in 2021, and so "it’s time to consider providing a very modest amount of public oversight for this enormous pool of taxpayer money." (The underline is his.)
Upthegrove's emphasis on a sudden $13 million funding increase "soon" is technically accurate, but the idea that 4Culture is suddenly going to get a huge "influx" of money is misleading.
According to 4Culture's executive director, Jim Kelly, the organization has been living off of $10 million per year since 2013. This money comes from an endowment that was transformed into an expendable account due to legislation passed by the state. The money from that account will run out at the end of 2020. In 2021, funds from Lodging Taxes and the 1% for Art Ordinance will kick in to the tune of $13 million dollars, which only represents an increase of $3 million more in their annual budget.
When asked over the phone why he wants to introduce this legislation now, given that there's no large influx of money coming in, and not for a while, Upthegrove repeated his claim that 4Culture will see a significant increase in funding soon, and added that Kelly's retirement offers a chance to "start fresh." 4Culture is completely funded by public dollars, he says, and so public representatives— who ultimately have to answer to the people—should have a say in the organization's structure and budget. "It seems like good government," he said. "There should be a formal role for public elected officials."
Kelly, who has been the ED of 4Culture for 25 years, says he has no problem with oversight but says 4Culture has been plenty overseen for the last 15 years. In that time they've had "23 clean state audits," he says. Moreover, King County council appoints three members to serve as ex officio board members of 4Culture. Right now those members are Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Claudia Balducci and Larry Gossett. They don't vote, but they confirm board nominees and they participate in the nominating process for the executive director.
Upthegrove claims he has no interest in micromanaging 4Culture's budget or program schedule and says the bill doesn't amount to a "takeover." He and the sponsors just want to have veto power over the org's budget, to appoint its board members, and to hire and fire the executive director just in case something bad happens.
When asked what would make him vote to veto a 4Culture budget, Upthegrove says he wishes the organization would "continue to make better progress around geographic distribution." Though he admits the org is "working hard" trying to get more money into south county, the district he represents, he's frustrated that it's not getting done faster. He's quick to say that a majority of the council would have to vote to veto the budget, and so it's not like his sole objection would be enough to veto the budget and thus delay funds to hundreds of arts organizations thirsty for money until a negotiation was reached. That may be true, but this process does, however, open up 4Culture's budget for political play.
Council member Kohl-Welles, who sits on the board of 4Culture and who says she was gone last week when the other members of the council were apparently discussing this bill, is worried about the potential politicization of 4Culture, too. Having the ability to fire the executive director "bothers her a lot," and she thinks requiring the council approve 4Culture's budget is "overstepping what the council should be doing."
"I keep hearing that terms 'accountability' and 'oversight' and 'transparency.' I think they're overused a lot. They're buzzwords. They sound good. But I'm not certain what the problems are that need to be fixed here," she said. She told me there's "always room for improvement," and says she agrees that the council could do more to ensure that 4Culture board appointees hail from each of the nine council districts.
But during her two years serving as an ex officio board member for 4Culture, Kohl-Welles says she has "felt satisfied with the ethical standards and procedures that have been used in terms of evaluating the projects." She recognizes that she represents the 4th district, which contains the largest arts institutions, but says she supports arts throughout the county.
Council member Claudia Balducci also thinks it's important for 4Culture to remain independent, and agrees that having the ability to fire the executive director would impinge upon their independence. "I like that they're apolitical. I want to preserve that," Balducci said. But she added that voting to approve or reject the budget and voting to appoint board members didn't seem like such a bad idea. "I'd be concerned if we were voting on the grants—that's politicizing the grant-making process. But that's not what's proposed," she said.
The bill has six sponsors, which means they can pass the legislation as is unless the sponsors pull it. If you want a say in that process, write to your council member and tell them you're skeptical of this political power grab.