Some King County Council members and some local arts supporters are at odds over a proposed ordinance that would give the council more oversight — or control, depending on who you talk to — over 4Culture, a county organization that distributes funds to arts and culture projects.
King County Council has stepped on a beehive.
On Wednesday, council members are likely to vote on increased “oversight” or “control” — it varies, depending on who you ask — of 4Culture, an independent county organization that distributes millions of dollars to a huge spectrum of arts and culture projects, from 206 Zulu to the 5th Avenue Theatre to individual artists.
The idea, according to Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who co-sponsored the ordinance, is to give the council more oversight over an agency at a time when that agency will be coming into a new stream of public funding.
But some artists and 4Culture staffers see the move as an attempt to politicize and control the agency, in order to funnel money into council members’ districts. They’re expected to voice opposition to the measure at the Wednesday morning council meeting.
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The ordinance, Upthegrove explained, gives the council new power to do four things: (1) hire and fire the executive director, (2) appoint nine out of 4Culture’s 15 board members, (3) approve or decline 4Culture’s budget and (4) amend 4Culture’s bylaws.
Six out of nine council members have sponsored the ordinance, almost guaranteeing its passage.
But longtime staff members at 4Culture aren’t happy.
“What problem are they trying to fix?” asked Jim Kelly, who’s been 4Culture’s director for 18 years and will retire in two months, after a 25-year career with the agency. “We’re transparent, we’re audited by the state and we’ve had 23 clean audits in a row … This has nothing to do with oversight and accountability. It has to do with controlling money.”
Artist Michelle de la Vega, who lives in unincorporated South King County, puts it more bluntly: “The council members want control because they want to put more money in their districts. They want to politicize it, and that’s not going to be effective.”
De la Vega has won roughly half of the 4Culture grants she’s applied for, and has served on its peer-review grant committees which, she said, are rigorous and merit-based. She recently read through 98 applications and spent two days on a panel deliberating over three $12,000 grants.
The county’s ability to appoint the majority of the 4Culture board, she said, is a recipe for pulling focus away from a merit-based grant system and toward funneling money toward individual districts: “If they can veto the budget, they can hold 4Culture hostage until they get what they want. They can say: ‘No, that’s not where we want the money to go.’ ”
And she thinks it’s no coincidence that the council is making these moves just as its longtime director is about to retire. “They’re basically saying ‘Jim Kelly, you’re not going to be standing in our way anymore,’ ” she said. “The next person who comes along is going to have to say yes because they can fire them.”
4Culture has another significant shift coming soon: In 2021, its revenue stream will shift from a dwindling endowment it has been drawing on for years (at roughly $10 million per year) to a $13 million-a-year sliver of hotel/motel taxes.
4Culture’s financial history is complicated, but the extremely short version: It has lived off the scraps dropped from the table of bigger projects and has been canny enough to leverage those scraps into an operating budget to fund arts and culture. In 1991, for example, hotel/motel tax money went to pay off $5.3 million a year in Kingdome debt. If that $5.3 million was met for the year, a slice of the leftovers went to 4Culture.
Eventually that money was going to evaporate (eventually, the Kingdome debt was going to be paid off), so 4Culture started saving money to pay for itself until it could get direct money from the hotel/motel tax again.
Upthegrove said the proposed ordinance doesn’t have anything to do with council members funneling money toward their districts or some institutional critique of 4Culture.
“This isn’t a problem seeking to be fixed,” he said. “This is the development of mechanisms and safeguards for the future. Most of us are satisfied with 4Culture — they do a fantastic job. The conversation is spurred a little bit by the leadership transition, significant money coming, and questions about whether this is a good model.”
The County Council, he said, will not be involved with granting 4Culture awards. “People get confused about that,” he said. “That scares people, but all those processes will stay the same.”