King County Council members and officials from suburban cities raised new concerns yesterday about a proposal to merge the city of Seattle and King County’s homelessness programs into a single agency during Wednesday’s meeting of the county Regional Policy Committee, which county council members as well as representatives from Seattle and several suburban cities. In addition to questions about whether the new body will be too “Seattle-centric,” officials pressed county staffers on two key points: Will this new agency make real strides toward addressing “root causes” and actually solving homelessness? And will its governing board be accountable to … well, anyone?
The first question was posed most pointedly by King County Council chair Rod Dembowski, who is on the fence about whether to support the restructure. Looking back to the five “root causes” of homelessness that were identified at the end of the lengthy One Table process, Dembowski asked county Department of Community and Human Services director Leo Flor if it was accurate to say that the regional consolidation “Will not play in a meaningful way to addressing those root causes; rather it is narrowly tailored to the crisis response to folks living unsheltered.” Flor responded, “You are exactly correct,” adding that if programs addressing root causes can be thought of as branches of primary care, “what we are describing and proposing is a more efficient and consolidated emergency room.”
“What improvement in people’s lives would you expect to see if we did what the executive and mayor were asking us to do?” Dembowski pressed.
“Consistent improvement on a problem that’s been hard to improve consistently,” Flor responded.
The other issue was about governance—specifically, the structure of the two boards that will sit atop the new regional authority like tiers of a layer cake. The smaller of two boards would be a steering committee made up of up to six elected officials and two people who have experienced homelessness, whose duties would be limited to confirming members of the governing board that would actually be in charge of the agency; approving that board’s five-year plan and budget without amendment; and confirming or removing governing board members, all by a majority of a plurality vote. (In other words, if four or five members showed up to a meeting, three members would constitute a majority of those present).
Beneath that board would be a second, 11-person governing board that would be charged with actually proposing and adopting policies and, eventually, appointing all of its own members. This board would include people with connections to groups like “the local business community; neighborhood and community associations; faith/religious groups; and the philanthropic community,” according to its proposed charter.
Although the first round of board members would be appointed by the city, county, and steering committee, after five years, the board would become “self-perpetuating,” appointing all of its own members; no elected officials or anyone else directly responsible to voters or taxpayers would be allowed to serve on this decision-making body. Flor said that although he was aware of other public development authorities that had a similar structure, “the self-perpetuating mechanism … is not a feature of any of the jurisdictions we looked to for the structure,” including Houston, Portland, and Los Angeles, which all have joint city-county homelessness agencies.
“The steering committee… it seems to me, is a recipe for potential disaster,” Bell said. “What happens if there’s a refusal to accept any nominations” from a certain organization, or “an inability for them to agree on a budget because they want to make some amendments? … If you give people who are accountable to the public power but the only [choice] they have is to go along with the recommendation given or to obstruct, it might lead to obstruction.” Is there, Bell asked, “a backstop” to prevent that from happening?
“There is no backstop within the legislation that’s proposed that would provide an alternative dispute mechanism,” Flor responded.
The idea of a board with no “constituency” goes back to the work done by the National Innovation Service, an NYC-based consultant. According to an NIS presentation about what a regional governance structure might look like, participants in seven planning workshops overwhelmingly said the board should be “insulated” from political pressure and negative media and should not include any elected officials.