City, County Close to Deal on Regional Homelessness Plan that Ditches New Governing Body for “Interlocal Agreement”

King County Council member Rod Dembowski (center left) says he and his council colleague Jeanne Kohl-Welles (center right) are close to an agreement on a new regional homelessness authority.

King County council members and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said today that they are close to an agreement on a regional homelessness plan that replaces a proposed Public Development Authority—an entirely new government agency that would have overseen the region’s response to homelessness—with an “interlocal agreement” between King County, the city of Seattle, and suburban cities. The agreement, which is not final, emerged out of talks between county and city officials over the weekend and a meeting between King County and Seattle officials earlier today.

Unlike the original proposal, which would have set up a new governing body in which elected officials had virtually no authority over budgets, hiring, or policy decisions, the new plan—which contains elements of a separate “alternative concept” proposed by King County Council chair Rod Dembowski, a Democrat, and his Republican fellow council member Reagan Dunn, last week—would set up a framework for King County, Seattle, and the governments of suburban cities to work together, an arrangement Dembowski insists differs from a PDA only in name and a few minor details.

“Instead of forming a new entity or government, we’re creating authority for a partnership, and it’s going to have all the powers and ability that a public development authority had, but without creating a new entity,” Dembowski told me today. “For example, the county could use its procuring department, or HR department, or the city could use theirs … I just fundamentally believe in keeping elected officials accountable” by preserving their direct authority instead of creating a new government agency, he said.

A group of suburban cities, represented by the Sound Cities Association, has been adamant that the county and city not create a brand-new government agency that isn’t directly accountable to the county, Seattle, and the suburban cities. The PDA was a nonstarter for the suburban cities, which viewed the new agency as a power grab by Seattle and King County.

In addition to ditching the PDA, the suburban cities (and some county council members) have also also insisted on changing the governance structure for the new authority so that elected officials on the authority’s governing board would have direct say over its budget, policies, and the membership of the “implementation board” that will actually adopt budgets and policies.

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Under the original proposal, the governing board (originally called the “steering committee”) would have included only elected officials from King County and Seattle, plus two people “representing stakeholders who have experienced homelessness,” and the implementation board (originally called the “governing board”) would be a panel of unelected experts who would set policy, adopt budgets, and choose an executive director for the new entity. The original proposal also gave the governing board virtually no direct authority over the board of experts (who would be separately appointed) and limited their powers  to straight up-or-down votes on policies, budgets, and the hiring and firing of the authority’s executive director.

King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles balked at the idea of delegating most of the authority back to elected officials. “That sounds a lot more like what we have already with the county council and city council,” Kohl-Welles said. “In other words, it’s not transformational.” 

Deanna Dawson, the spokeswoman for the Sound Cities Association, says elected officials from suburban cities “know that they have to be accountable to their public on these issues regardless, and they don’t want to try to get out of that authority by delegating it to someone else. Elected officials are elected to set policy, so the policy should ultimately be set by elected officials” rather than a board of experts.

The makeup of the new authority’s two-tier structure remains a sticking point, according to Dembowski and Kohl-Welles. Last week, Kohl-Welles floated an alternative that would have expanded the new governing committee (the group formerly known as the Steering Committee) to include suburban elected leaders and given it the authority to dissolve the new regional body after five years and confirm or fire the executive director. But she balked at the idea of delegating most of the authority back to elected officials. “That sounds a lot more like what we have already with the county council and city council,” Kohl-Welles said. “In other words, it’s not transformational.” 

Dembowski said that one potential compromise would be giving the governing board the authority to reverse decisions made by the implementation board, but only by a supermajority.

The firm that advised the city and county on the proposal, National Innovation Service, strongly advised “insulating” the authority “from political or economic pressure” by creating a PDA that was not directly accountable to any local government and delegating all decisions to a board that would become self-perpetuating after five years, meaning that no elected official would have any direct say over its composition

In a statement provided to The C Is for Crank, Mayor Durkan said county officials and the suburban cities “have made this proposal stronger – and I urge them to embrace this opportunity to more effectively address homelessness across our region. If we just re-arrange the deck chairs, we will have missed a remarkable opportunity. We need to seize this chance and get this done now.”

Dunn, for his part, said today that “the voters have already elected a government to work on homelessness—so my central priority is that elected officials retain the responsibility and authority to do so, rather than delegating that authority to an unelected board.  Specifically, elected officials need to retain power over how tax dollars are spent and to have substantial input on, and ultimate approval of, the formation of policy. This is the job that we were elected to do.”

The county’s Regional Policy Committee, which includes representatives from Seattle and some suburban cities, currently plans to hold a special meeting on the week of December 1 to discuss and possibly vote on a proposal, which go to the full council later that month. The Seattle City Council would also have to sign off on the proposal. Any plan adopted by either council could be vetoed by Durkan or Constantine, making it imperative, Kohl-Welles says, to come up with a plan both the mayor and county executive will support. “I’m in the role of trying to navigate and bring people together and just find a solution that, number one, is workable, and number two, won’t be vetoed by the executive and the mayor,” she says.

And the clock is ticking: Plans to start transitioning Seattle Human Services Department staffers to new offices at the county-owned Yesler Building in December have already been pushed back, and HSD staffers have been waiting for months to find out if they should start looking for new positions or if their roles will transition to the new authority. Dembowski, Kohl-Welles, and even a cautious Constantine—who said today that he planned to “say very little, because I don’t want to upset the apple cart”—seemed optimistic today that they would be able to pass something before the county and city councils hold their final meetings of the year in mid-December.

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