LAST November, the King County Housing Authority quietly granted a 30-year lease on 509 of its apartment units to an obscure nonprofit agency called Moving King County Residents Forward.
The deal happened in an open meeting, as required by the state Open Public Meetings Act, since the housing authority is a public agency. But since then, getting information about how this nonprofit operates has been difficult, since nonprofit agencies aren’t required to operate with the same level of transparency.
That is especially odd because the housing authority created Moving King County Residents Forward. The organizations share identical governing boards, and the housing authority’s deputy director is the nonprofit’s registered agent.
The housing authority made this deal with apparently good intentions. It allows the authority, which retains ownership of the apartments, to shift the apartments from the federal public housing program, which has been squeezed by budget cuts, to the more steady, lucrative Section 8 program. And it allows the nonprofit to seek $18 million in private loan capital to upgrade apartment units; the housing authority can’t legally take on debt.
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But the deal undermines vital transparency of government agencies. On that basis, a housing authority tenant, Cindy Ference, sued the agency last month.
The nonprofit board is voluntarily following state open meetings and records laws, says Connie Davis, the housing authority’s deputy director.
But in an email, she staked out a position that makes that decision discretionary. There is no notice of nonprofit board meetings on the housing authority’s website, and Ference’s lawsuit alleges the nonprofit board did in fact meet without public notice.
A decade ago, when three daily newspapers covered King County government instead of one, a reporter may have noticed these actions. Today, there are many fewer eyes. That makes it even more incumbent on government to function in the daylight.
This deal is authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s local office signed off on the nonprofit, and considers open-government questions a matter of state jurisdiction.
The housing authority essentially created a shell entity that can operate in the shadows.
In the public’s interest, the agency must treat this nonprofit as an extension of itself: Post nonprofit board meeting notices and minutes on its website, and scrupulously follow the state open records law.