One of the oddest stories of the year has been the secrecy surrounding Mayor Jim Ferrell’s Homeless Committee. A good idea, undermined by excluding the media and the public from even attending to listen or observe, even though public education was an intended outcome.
It was only after council members complained about the secrecy that Ferrell started posting some general information and staff provided some reports to council committees. But unless the public and the media can attend and listen, it becomes a closed “secret” meeting, and that breeds suspicion. First it was fear, even though police officers serve on the committee, then it was, these are “working committees” and not “conducive” to public or media observation. Not a good reason.
The committee has been meeting for many months looking for solutions to our local homeless challenges. But it wasn’t until very recently, during the council’s discussion of the 2019-20 budget, that the public learned Ferrell’s staff has met with Mary’s Place staff, who are well known in the homeless business, and Ferrell acknowledged he is considering an agreement that would set aside 10 beds for homeless mothers and children from Federal Way in Burien.
We don’t know how long the discussions have been going on. Ferrell takes exception to my suggesting he was “dealmaking,” but the city staff work for him, and they are in discussions with Mary’s Place about an agreement, so unless the staff have gone rogue, Ferrell either directed or approved those discussions and they will likely result in a “deal.” Ferrell is planning to use the $100,000 state money that our 30th District legislators, Sen. Mark Miloscia and Reps. Kristine Reeves and Mike Pellicciotti, had allocated to the city to help our homeless. Relocating them to Burien and spending the money in a different legislative district seems to stretch that intent.
The committee was a“mayor’s advisory committee,” not an official committee authorized by the council, so Ferrell could keep it secret from the public. That is also what the Mayors Committee for the Performing Arts and Event Center was and the city is carrying a big debt. The Homeless Committee membership was introduced to much fanfare and a great photo opportunity, just like the PAEC and Violence Prevention Committee were, but then went into secret mode with Ferrell saying they would have a report on Dec. 21. That date provided a second oddity, as we are well into the cold months and the budget was passed Dec. 4.
Several council members had been looking for a local place to house the homeless and also wanted to fund employment opportunities and transition services. That option should still be available if the city gets serious about finding a Federal Way location. City government has closed about 30 homeless encampments, while spending taxpayer money on closing encampments located on public property, even though the city apparently doesn’t know how much it actually costs. That might be information worth keeping track of, like other cities do, such as Renton. Rather than close camps and push the homeless to different parts of the city, save the money for transitional housing and find a local building. The council asked Ferrell to move up the due date of the report to early November so it could be considered for the budget, but it didn’t happen.
With the availability of additional money from leaving the SCORE jail agreement, council members wanted to set aside $100,000-$200,000 to implement the recommendations of the mayor’s Homeless Committee. But Ferrell said he had no plans to spend any new city money on the homeless situation. Ferrell said it was his committee and he was not asking for the money. His message offered no compromise, though many, including some council members, view the problem as City Hall’s responsibility.
After the discussions with Mary’s Place in Burien came to light, council members, social service providers and some Homeless Committee members said they had not known about it, even though Mary’s Place has a representative on the committee. Council members are concerned they may not have the authority to alter the agreement. And with the $100,000 gone to Burien, no new city money and the state Legislature unlikely to provide any help until possibly July with the new fiscal year, some committee members wonder what are they supposed to do with the committee’s recommendations? The council wants to return to the issue in March. But have we wasted another year and left the homeless outside for another winter.
If finalized, the plan would provide for 10 beds for our homeless in Burien, which is in direct contrast to our city elected officials’ previous complaints that Seattle and other cities should take care of their own, when they thought Seattleites were headed here. And sending our mothers and children to another city, even if they have family and connections to Federal Way, when combined with the continued encampment closures seems to add another level of “your not welcome here.”
Then add in the political dynamics. FUSION has been working with County Council member Pete von Reichbauer who was able to secure $3 million from the county budget to help establish housing for the homeless in Federal Way. Those discussions grew out of the mothers and children’s committee. If limited to mothers and children, there would still be many homeless that need a roof over their heads, transition services and job opportunities that council members seemed willing to support.
But FUSION’s efforts won’t be easy either. After rumors circulated that the city did not know about the FUSION plan, many residents used the budget hearings to assert their opposition to the proposed location near Christ the Light Church.
Also, Ferrell views von Reichbauer as his mentor, and Ferrell assured the residents in opposition to the FUSION plan that the city was “all over it,” and had planning staff describe the actions that would require city review. Both steps could be read as a hint suggesting Ferrell might be sensitive to their position.
An agreement with Mary’s Place or FUSION could be a big win in the fight to end homelessness. But not if our homeless are sent to Burien and away from family support and the other services we have here.
With the secret PAEC meetings, followed by a similar approach with the Homeless Committee and now a potential agreement to send our homeless to Burien, apparently without telling the council or his own committee, Federal Way may need to focus on more open and transparent government. If the council wants to avoid future circumvention of their legislative prerogatives they need to establish a policy that caps the mayor’s authority, and requires any contract or agreement over $99,999 or possibly lower, to be approved by the council.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.