On Wednesday morning, artists and directors packed the King County Council chambers to speak out against Proposed Ordinance No. 2018-0068. The bill, introduced last month by six council members, gives the council power to control the governing structure of 4Culture, an independent Public Development Authority (PDA) that annually distributes millions of dollars in grants to artists and cultural institutions.
If the bill passes in its purist state, the council would be able to hire and fire 4Culture's executive director, appoint members to the board, and veto the organization's budget.
During the public comment, dozens called 4Culture "a model" grant-giving operation. One artist even went so far as to call it "a model of organizational brilliance." The general consensus was that 4Culture does a great job of equitably spreading arts and heritage funding throughout the county, so county control would needlessly politicize the organization. Sculptor Michael McGrath said the bill was “more about power and pork than good governance," and a number of people echoed his sentiment.
One of the proposal's sponsors, council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents Kent, argues that public funds pay for 4Culture, therefore publicly elected officials should be "held accountable" for the way that money gets spent.
But council member Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon Island, told me that "after the staff briefing this morning, and after the presentation by three members of the 4Culture board, and based on all the comments from constituents," he doesn't see a problem that needs to be solved here.
"I think it’s an ordinance in search of a problem," McDermott said. "In fact, some have said there isn’t a problem we need to solve, we’re just increasing transparency. What’s the problem with the transparency now?"
Last month, Jim Kelly, 4Culture's outgoing executive director, told me the organization is plenty transparent. The state has audited it more than 20 times in the last 15 years, and three county council members (Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Claudia Balducci, and Larry Gossett) currently sit on 4Culture's board as non-voting members.
McDermott also says 4Culture would be the only PDA in the region whose budget the council could veto. "It's singling this one out," he said.
A non-partisan analysis—which was included in the meeting's agenda packet—comparing 4Culture to 15 other regional PDAs confirms that under this ordinance "4Culture would be the only PDA to have its operating and capital budget approved by the government agency that created it." 4Culture would also become "the only other agency in the comparison to have an executive director that must be appointed and could be fired" by the council. To be fair, 4Culture and the South Correctional Entity Facility were the only PDAs on the list who receive or will receive all their money from public sources.
Passage seems almost inevitable with six council members sponsoring the bill, but there is some talk of compromise. An amendment added to the current proposal would remove the council's ability to hire/fire 4Culture's executive director, but it would retain the council's ability to select board members and slightly modify the organization's budget reporting requirements.
McDermott said he doesn't see the point of forcing the council to directly appoint members to the board. "That creates an accountability to the council member as opposed to the arts, cultural, and heritage community across King County who have the required expertise," he said. "I don’t see the benefit to that."
A spokesperson for 4Culture said the amendment "doesn't change the fact that they can reject the 4Culture budget and withhold funds for annual funding programs," and adds that the council has yet "to offer any information on the criteria they would use to reject [the budget], and what the process would be once they rejected it."
When I asked Upthegrove back in January what would make him veto a budget, he pronounced his two favorite words in the English language: "geographic diversity." He said he wants 4Culture to "continue to make better progress around geographic distribution," which means he wants more grants given to artists, historical sites, and organizations around Kent.
Josh LaBelle, who runs Seattle Theatre Group (which programs the Paramount, the Moore, and the Neptune) spoke directly to this issue during the public comment period, mentioning several instances in which 4Culture representatives facilitated outreach programs between STG and smaller organizations in Tukwila, Burien, and other places.
Moreover, in the agenda packet, 4Culture states they've had board members residing in every council district for the entirety of its 15-year history, with the exception of times when board members "moved after they had been appointed."
Council member Balducci scheduled the next meeting for March 7. There likely won't be public comment during the meeting, though everyone can go and watch the council debate the issue.