Our new mayor, Seth Fleetwood, has trusted the staff he inherited from previous mayor, Kellie Linville, to handle a delicate situation, and it’s not going well. The staff has been tasked with drafting a lease for a replacement homeless drop-in center in the vacated Public Market building on Cornwall Avenue. This process has been going on in secret, unbeknownst to even City Council members.
Further complicating matters, it appears that north downtown business owners, realtors and attorneys are unleashing a petition protest on the mayor. It could hit city hall today or Thursday.
Seth has been quietly working to lease the now-vacant Public Market on Cornwall as the next interim shelter for the large number of homeless people currently accommodated at Bellingham High School. With the closure of schools in March, the city arranged to use the school for a shelter; but since we expect classes to resume in September, another facility has been the subject of citywide concern. Seth left the management of this process to one of Kellie’s former staff members.
Kellie Linville was a master of behind-the-scenes operations from her many years experience in Olympia. She was an expert administrator and personally managed and controlled her staff carefully. Due to that lack of independence, they are not up to serious project management themselves. Seth retained nearly every member of that staff, when in fact, he should have his own independent administrative supervisor and staff.
This week, a number of local business owners, commercial property managers and downtown attorneys learned of the plan to acquire the Public Market and convert it for homeless use. And this morning they have struck back, circulating a petition protesting the lack of public process. Frank Chmelik, a local attorney, has filed a public disclosure request with the city and also is leading the charge against the use of the Public Market by claiming the process is violating open government codes. This is truly ironic.
Frank Chmelik is the statewide go-to guy for instructing municipal governments on the finer points of public disclosure law. In my experience and opinion, Frank teaches them how to hide information from the public, and how to obey the law while keeping information secret. He is a master of this, honing his skills as attorney for the Port of Bellingham. Indeed, he successfully blocked me from seeing many Port of Bellingham records that should have been public. Now, ironically, he is claiming the city is being secretive. Too rich.
Seth is likely the most honorable person we have elected as our mayor in years - perhaps ever. But he is still getting a feel for things. He should have been more open about this process. I have it reliably that even the city council was kept in the dark. While the mayor’s office has denied this, I have it reliably from multiple council members that they were not informed. The county council, that needs to approve over a million dollars for this project, was also kept in the dark. City hall sources tell me that Seth relied on one of his inherited staff members, Tara Sundin, to initiate, control and push this project to success. She has kept everyone else in the dark. Seth needs new staff of his own choosing and more competence than the present staff.
No question that Seth Fleetwood needs to learn what “transparency” means in government. He was warned about this by supporters after the election and he was confused about what they meant. He is learning the hard way. Still, this is a misstep and an error that he can learn from. No big damage done except to egos. We all know Seth means well, but he has to also do his good work in full public view. Hopefully he will learn.
The issue of how to provide for the homeless is a major community issue and should proceed with full public participation.
For this article, I have contacted the mayor and his administration, seeking specific answers to questions. I have been stone walled much of today waiting for them to reply. I was asked to hold this article for an hour - and that was 5 hours ago. Since then, I have been promised a press release within a half hour or hour multiple times. And finaly in 10 minutes - a half hour ago. Nothing. This is stone walling - delaying an article while staff does damage control elsewhere. We can expect a press release sometime today on this issue by the mayor. But it seems that even answering simple questions is a stretch for this administration. And it seems that the mayor’s staff is not telling even Seth the truth about what they are doing, such as telling him the council is informed when, when in fact they are not being informed.