[10/23/2021 8:32 AM- Correction: Whatcom County Community Outreach Facilitator Jed Holmes reached out to me to clarify his annual salary which is approximately $65,628 rather than the $93,202 salary approved by the County Council and referenced in my article.]
After reading this piece in the Bellingham Herald detailing the City’s plans to better address homelessness this winter, I wondered why City Hall decided to hire an outside public relations consultant to promote their proposed strategies for helping local homeless people. So I emailed Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood with questions:
- Why was it necessary to hire a public relations firm to promote the way you are addressing homelessness when City Hall has a Communications Director?
- Is it true the PR firm is from out of town, and what will the city be paying them?
Mayor Fleetwood’s response:
“The City is collaborating with the Whatcom County Health Department in a project to improve community information and education about homelessness. We hope that this effort will help community members understand what services local agencies are providing as well as increase understanding about, compassion for, and mobilize support for people who are experiencing homelessness.
“The City’s portion of the contract is up to $19,050 through an interlocal agreement with Whatcom County. The contractor was selected through a competitive process led by the county with participation by City staff, including Janice Keller, our Communications Director.
“A City priority is providing timely, accurate, understandable information about City government services and activities. Directing additional communications resources toward housing and homelessness is one of several ways we are addressing that priority.”
Following up, I spoke to County Council member Kathy Kershner, who directed me to the council’s Sept. 14, 2021 meeting minutes where Reading Communications (not a Whatcom-based company) was approved (4-3 with Byrd, Kershner, Elenbaas opposed) as our homelessness outreach public relations consultant. The interlocal agreement between Bellingham and Whatcom County produced a contract hiring Reading Communications for a total of $38,100 (contract term 9/1/21 to 8/31/22). Bellingham will reimburse the county for half, up to $19,050.
Educating the public on a complex and emotionally-charged issue like homelessness is important, but again, do we need to spend scarce funds on outside PR firms? How many communications professionals does one modest-sized county really need and at what cost?
Janice Keller is the City’s full-time, very experienced and capable communications director. Whatcom County also created, and the County Council approved, a full-time communications director in January 2020 shortly after Executive Sidhu took office.
Jed Holmes was chosen to fill this new county position of Community Outreach Facilitator. According to the Lynden Tribune, “Professionally, Holmes has worked on political campaigns…” In fact, Jed Holmes was Satpal Sidhu’s campaign manager in Sidhu’s run for county executive.
I looked for work Holmes has done running educational campaigns on county policies, homelessness planning, or other critical issues that arose during the COVID crisis. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate any outreach materials created or campaigns managed by Holmes. Kershner shared with me that Holmes does write memos to the County Council on the executive’s behalf. He is paid $93,202 a year.
Again, when City Hall and Whatcom County already have communications people on staff, it seems unnecessary and wasteful to spend more money on an outside PR firm. That money could be going directly to creating more low-income housing. As I have written before and other cities have proven, the Housing First model (housing…not shelter beds) is the most successful and cost-effective method to reduce homelessness long-term.
A Public Relations Headache?
During the pandemic, both Bellingham and Whatcom County received federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funds. In 2020, Whatcom County received $2.5 million of the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill to award to local businesses that were impacted and struggling with COVID-19 lockdowns and closures. The maximum grant available was $15,000 per business. Whatcom County and the cities of Bellingham, Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, and Sumas all contributed CARES Act funds to the Whatcom ReStart grant program and each took part in identifying the top applicants in their respective jurisdictions.
Originally, the Whatcom County Council was told by County Executive Satpal Sidhu that the 628 Whatcom ReStart grant program applications would be presented to the council for review and final selection.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, a behind-the-scenes evaluation was conducted between Executive Sidhu’s office and the Port of Bellingham. A list of 269 “top-tier applicants” who would receive grant funding was presented to the council as a done deal. Please note the name Spice Hut Corporation among the list of Bellingham recipients. Spice Hut is a 17-year-old Washington state corporation based in Bellingham. It is registered to Satpal Sidhu’s wife and family:
This raises two questions.
1. Why wasn’t the agreed-upon process followed by allowing the council to determine the recipients?
2. Is it appropriate that Executive Sidhu’s family business applied for this grant?
According to County Council meeting minutes, Sidhu was questioned about why Spice Hut Corp. was going to receive a Whatcom ReStart grant. His explanation was that he did not own the corporation, his wife did. This still seemed a conflict-of-interest as Washington is a community property state. And during his campaign, Sidhu proudly said he was a long-time local business owner, and his campaign website listed his ownership of Spice Hut Corp. and Lynden Berry. In a 2021 Lynden Tribune article Executive Sidhu again mentioned that he owns Spice Hut. Then, when asked if the potential public relations headache regarding this conflict-of-interest would be “worth it,” he made the decision not to accept the grant for Spice Hut Corp.
As mentioned, the focus of the PR outreach is to educate the public so we will have more understanding and compassion for our homeless community members. Do all of our public officials have compassion for homeless folks and the volunteers who support them?
The people involved in the Winter 2020/21 campout in front of Bellingham’s City Hall, homeless people and their volunteer advocates and activists, were called the “Collective”. In emails and on social media, Sidhu commented “Now you know the tactics being used by the advocates: inviting outsider[s] for violence, vandalism and mayhem.” In January 2021, Sidhu posted on Facebook “It is clear that those who are organizing the protests at City Hall are not there for the overall betterment of the unsheltered.”
Along with the homeless campers and volunteers, unfortunately there were some outsiders proposing resistance or potential violence which led Mayor Fleetwood to send in the Bellingham Police Dept., including an armed SWAT team, to evict people and sweep the site a day earlier than the end date promised to the campers. Did our local, long-time volunteer homeless advocates invite outsiders “for violence and mayhem?” There is no evidence of that.
The Noisy Waters blog shared this Feb. 1, 2021 email from Jed Holmes to Janice Keller:
"Header: Beating up more on the Collective
I just spoke with Satpal.
He wants me to try to beat up on the Collective a little more.
What’s your commentary?
What does that mean ”…beat up on the Collective…?” Does it mean to try to silence the voices of the homeless and their advocates?
Stifling Public Comment
The good news is, Bellingham and the county have chosen to add more shelter beds this fall and winter. Hopefully we will have enough beds that people won’t be forced to live outside or in a car or RV in cold rain and snow or die on our streets, as has happened in past winters here. But remember: shelter beds are not housing and shelters do not provide a long-term, cost-effective solution to reduce or end homelessness.
Earlier this year, the long-running Housing Strategies Workgroup was dissolved. Public comment is sometimes restricted during city and county council and other public meetings (still held via Zoom in 2021), further choking off community discussion of this and other important issues. More than ever we now must rely on our elected officials and public servants to make good decisions on our behalf. Ideally, they will be open-minded and listen to as many of their constituents’ feelings and positions as possible, not actively work to silence our voices and encourage divisiveness. We must require they be ethical and transparent in financial and other dealings.
I voted for Satpal Sidhu because I felt he truly cared about doing good work on behalf of everyone in our community. I now question the wisdom of that vote. Satpal no longer has my trust or support. And frankly, in the current election cycle, I also do not value his endorsements of other candidates. If others have corrections or clarifications, I would encourage you to comment. Overall, I am disappointed in our county executive, and saddened that I had to write this article at all.