An ordinance allowing King County Council to assert greater control over 4Culture passed out of the body's Committee of the Whole on Wednesday. After a couple hours of combing through various amendments to the bill, the council took up the original version—which was sponsored by six of the nine members—along with CM Dave Upthegrove's striking amendment.
The measure allows council members to veto 4Culture's budget and to directly appoint people to 4Culture's board. It would also remove the requirement that board members demonstrate expertise in one of the four fields 4Culture oversees—arts, public art, heritage, and historic preservation—for nine of the 15 spots. Candidates for the other six spots would be filled by the King County executive. Currently, for any open position, the executive appoints one of two people selected by 4Culture's nominating committee, and then the council confirms.
In general, the council members who like the bill say they're just trying to increase transparency and, uh, to make sure that 4Culture is doing everything they possibly can do direct more grant money to their districts. The council members who don't like the bill think it's an unnecessary power grab that will ultimately politicize the work of an independent Public Development Authority (PDA) that doesn't need to be any more politicized than it already is.
Jim Kelly, 4Culture's outgoing executive director, said in a statement that the organization was "disappointed that the Council Committee passed this unnecessary legislation on to the Council for a final vote."
"We believe additional amendments may be added. We were encouraged by the steadfast support of councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Claudia Balducci, and Joe McDermott. They had the reasonable arguments, but not the votes."
McDermott, Kohl-Welles, and Balducci offered amendments designed to alleviate the shock of county intervention. Kohl-Welles's motion, for instance, would create a task force composed of 4Culture and other community experts to make recommendations to the council about ways to increase the number of grants awarded to artists and organizations in other districts before the ordinance was implemented. Six council members voted against it.
CM Rod Dembowski called the motion "overly cumbersome," which was particularly rich given the fact that he proposed a motion to create a similar task force that would do the same thing as Kohl-Welles's, but only AFTER the ordinance was passed, when it would be more difficult to accept the group's recommendations.
"It's not the usual way for any legislative body to take on something so complex, and to do it without the relevant community to be involved," says Kohl-Welles over the phone. "Our argument about creating the task force first makes sense to do, but they were set on their points. The train had left the station and they were not going to slow it down. They had invested too much."
In his closing statement, McDermott reminded the chamber that the bill wasn't proposed in response to a problem, so he's still having a hard time figuring out why they're voting on it. He also pointed out that, were the measure to pass, 4Culture would be the only PDA in the county subject to this much "oversight" by the council. "This is unique, and unnecessary, and, in my opinion, inappropriate," he said. "And particularly troubling in this ordinance is the loss of expertise in the four areas that 4Culture oversees."
Opponents of the bill wore green scarves in protest and filled up the chamber. Just in case those people needed any evidence to confirm their fears that some council members only want more power to appoint their friends to positions of power within 4Culture as opposed to experts selected by a nominating committee, Council Member Kathy Lambert was there to give it to them.
Lambert, who represents northeast King County, said it bothered her that "anyone would say that anybody up here would appoint somebody that didn't have artistic talents or artistic interest," and then launched into a few telling anecdotes.
Without providing any names or really any useful details at all, Lambert said "a curator from New York" once moved into her district and expressed feelings of loneliness. Wanting to help, Lambert suggested she could "get her on a board committee" somewhere, given that she was serving as an non-voting member of 4Culture's board. After learning that this person was a "curator for a museum," Lambert exclaimed "Oh my gosh!" and submitted her name to 4Culture for consideration. Lambert said she was surprised to learn that 4Culture had not accepted her to the board, and even more surprised to learn it was because 4Culture didn't think she was qualified. But when she called her friend back, she was super-duper surprised when her friend claimed that 4Culture hadn't even interviewed her in the first place! Scandal.
"So that was a problem for me," Lambert said, not at all making this personal, because, whatever—it wasn't even really that big of a deal—but, you know, it hurts to be lied to, and she just wishes they would have been more forward about not having considered this random person who she'd sorta promised a spot to.
Lacking more specific information, a spokesperson for 4Culture said over e-mail that they couldn't completely confirm Lambert's story. They also said they wouldn't share the names of the people involved "in the interest of protecting their privacy." But they were willing to share the information they had available.
In her capacity as a member of 4Culture's nominating committee in 2016, Lambert submitted the names of two people for the board treasurer position, which was about to become vacant in 2017. "While both would make excellent 4Culture board members, they lacked the finance background necessary for the vacant Treasurer position, and neither was interviewed by the Nominating Committee," the spokesperson said.
I requested a comment from Lambert through a county spokesperson, but I haven't heard back. I'll update this post if I learn more. But based on this information, it looks like Lambert nominated a museum curator for a treasury position because she was trying to be nice to a new resident of her district—not because this person was qualified for the job—and then got mad at 4Culture when they didn't appoint her bad candidate.
Alright we got some updates here. Council Member Lambert left a voicemail on my machine to "correct some facts" because she "thought that might be helpful." In her message, Lambert points out that the board appointment is a volunteer position, and not a paid position, revealing her deep misunderstanding of why people oppose the legislation. (It's not about money—it's about council members fucking up a well-functioning arts organization by appointing people who don't know anything about art, historical preservation, or the business of running a well-functioning arts organization. It only starts being about money when council members start collecting donations from those volunteer members as a way of thanking them for giving them something to do with their days, or when they start taking credit for any grant money that come into their district during a re-election campaign.)
She also says she didn't nominate the "New York curator" for treasurer, but, even if she had, she wants to know how 4Culture could tell if her nominee was qualified if they never called her in the first place? Lambert concluded her message by saying that 4Culture wouldn't have any documentation on this incident "because it was supposed to be an oral interview."
In response to Lambert's comments, 4Culture executive director Jim Kelly said the nominating committee was "actively recruiting someone with a financial background as we were losing our Board Treasurer" and they "specifically identified that skill set as criteria for the open position." So Lambert may have submitted this person's name to the open position, not realizing the committee was looking for someone with a financial background.
As for Lambert's question about 4Culture's apparently clairvoyant assessment of her nominee, Kelly says the committee screens people before they call the way everybody else does: "We get recommendations and we look at resumes and information that is available online using tools like LinkedIn. If we think candidates have the requisite requirements, we call them and invite them to an interview with the Nominating Committee."
Kelly says this appointment was a little different than others in one respect, though. Normally the committee submits two nominees for each open position, and then the county executive—in this case, Dow Constantine—picks one. This time, they asked the executive if they could just submit one name. He approved, "and the council confirmed Greg Beams, who is an accountant with Ernst and Young," Kelly said.
What an incredibly fun story.
Anyhow, if you don't want inexperienced people making influential decisions about an arts organization that everyone admits is already running just fine as it is, then show up to the full council meeting on March 19th. There will be a public comment period. Be prepared to wait in line.
In the meantime, find what district you live in, and then
yell at voice your disappointment and offer your clear suggestions (to carefully consider Jeanne Kohl-Welles's amendments at the next meeting!) to the appropriate representative:
firstname.lastname@example.org (206) 477-1003
email@example.com (206) 477-1009
Pete von Reichbauer
firstname.lastname@example.org (206) 477-1007
email@example.com (206) 477-1001
firstname.lastname@example.org (206) 477-1005
email@example.com (206) 477-1002