In two shots across the bow of groups that support the Columbia River Crossing, Clark County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke, both Republicans, halted funding to the Columbia River Economic Development Council and changed funding to the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council from an annual to quarterly basis.
The third commissioner, Democrat Steve Stuart, did not sign off on either change and questioned the legality of one of the moves.
Stuart was surprised to learn of Madore’s and Mielke’s decision to cut off funding to the CREDC on Tuesday when a staff member presented him with a letter to CREDC President Lisa Nisenfeld from Madore and Mielke. Stuart said he not only refused to sign it, but ordered the letter be rewritten because he didn’t even want his name to appear on it.
In December — before the anti-light rail Madore took office — the Board of Clark County Commissioners signed a two-year contract with the CREDC worth $200,000.
In the letter to Nisenfeld, Madore and Mielke wrote that all payments to the CREDC will be halted, effective immediately, and so the CREDC can stop all efforts to help economic development in unincorporated areas of Clark County.
“We certainly recognize the positive value that CREDC can bring to economic development in Clark County through its recruitment and retention programs,” the letter reads. “However, that focus on jobs has been diluted by the CREDC Board voting to advocate for the CRC project which includes light rail. Since Clark County voters took a firm position against light rail during the general election on November 6, 2012, it would be inappropriate for their county government to provide public funding to any agency which acts at odds with their vote.”
The letter goes on to say if the CREDC Board of Directors votes to withdraw support for the CRC, the county will reinstate funding.
“It is our genuine hope that this halt in funding will not continue indefinitely, but to be plain that outcome is wholly in the hands of the CREDC board,” the letter reads. “We hope and trust that the CREDC board will act appropriately and end its advocacy for CRC and light rail.”
Mielke and Madore decided to send the letter on Jan. 16 during the commissioners’ weekly board time. Stuart did not attend board time because he was in Olympia for a meeting of the state public works board.
Stuart, who represents the county on the CREDC Board of Directors, said Tuesday that he refused to sign the letter because, for one, he thinks it’s illegal.
“I’m not willing to sign off on a breach of contract,” Stuart said. “More specifically, I wasn’t going to sign off on an illegal action that hurts our ability to bring jobs.”
Mielke defended the decision Tuesday, saying the commissioners were put in a difficult spot when light rail was rejected by voters in November.
What voters rejected was a sales tax increase to pay for light rail operations and maintenance.
Mielke said the distinction is splitting hairs.
“We’re supposed to represent the people,” Mielke said Tuesday. “We have been put in a very awkward position.”
Mielke said he and Madore will halt payments to any organization that supports the Columbia River Crossing.
Light rail is planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project, which would also replace the Interstate 5 Bridge and rebuild five miles of freeway.
The Columbia River Economic Development Council is Clark County’s largest nonprofit business recruiter and jobs promoter. It announced in September that it has already reached 60 percent of its goal of raising $5.5 million through 2017 to fund its annual operating budget.
The Vancouver-based nonprofit, formed in 1982, helps grow existing businesses, helps entrepreneurs secure capital, preserves and creates more land for industrial and commercial employers, and teams up with schools to boost education in science, technology, engineering and math.
Nisenfeld said Tuesday that in her 12 years of experience in economic development, she’s never seen a development partner pull funding because of a single issue. Madore has said Clark County government would have to control funding of the CREDC on a month-to-month basis, Nisenfeld noted.
“That’s not how we do partnerships in Clark County,” she said.
Nisenfeld said she wasn’t surprised that Madore and Mielke moved to rescind county funding of the CREDC. “We didn’t think it would come without some further public discussion, however.”
Nisenfeld said she expects the CREDC will be able to continue its work, despite the commission’s action. “Obviously, we need to speak more with the board and our investors, and we’ll have a better idea in the coming weeks, but we’re pretty confident that we’re supported by our business community.”
Bill Dudley, chairman of the CREDC’s Board of Directors, released a statement: “This is a very disappointing action on the part of the Commissioners,” he wrote. “CREDC is one of the few venues available for the private sector to partner with the public sector regarding a broad variety of important economic development issues. To withdraw support from the enterprise based on a single issue is unfortunate.”
Nisenfeld added that the CREDC, despite Madore’s and Mielke’s statement that the organization can stop all efforts to help economic development in unincorporated Clark County, will continue to work with the private sector and cities to promote business growth and follow the Clark County Economic Development Plan.
“Clearly, such a reduction in funding will have an impact on our ability to deliver services,” Nisenfeld said in a written statement. “However, we are confident in our ability to secure alternative resources.”
The decision to halt funding to the CREDC was made during board time on Jan. 16, a weekly meeting that takes place in a small conference room because even though it’s open to the public, the public doesn’t attend. Unlike weekly commissioner meetings, board time isn’t recorded by Clark-Vancouver Television.
Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member, is president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Nixon said the county’s action raises important government process, public policy and legal questions.
If a public body is going to make a decision about something, it needs to vote on it, he said. “Even if two commissioners agreed to do something, it wouldn’t be an official act of the body unless (a) vote was taken.”
County government’s relationship with other agencies is another matter, Nixon said. If a government changes its mind about an issue, then it’s a good idea to give others the time to adapt to the new political reality. “It’s more of a good government issue,” Nixon said. You can make a change in a more “predictable, friendly way as opposed to saying ‘You guys are done.’ “
Nixon said the terms of the contract the county signed with the Columbia River Economic Development Council are a major part of the situation. “I would check on the cancellation terms (of) the contract to make sure the county even had the right to cancel it suddenly like that,” Nixon said. Agencies that have contracts with governments make hiring and other decisions based on those contracts, Nixon said, and “to have it suddenly canceled, it’s really kind of unfair” to the people involved.
The Columbian has made a request under the state’s Public Records Act for copies of all handwritten notes taken at the Jan. 16 meeting.
According to the Dec. 18 contract, the county was to pay the CREDC $100,000 this year and $100,000 in 2014 in exchange for promoting and enhancing economic development and employment opportunities in Clark County.
Also Tuesday, Madore and Mielke voted during the commissioner’s weekly meeting to change the way the county funds the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. The county will send its $36,300 annual contribution to RTC in quarterly payments, instead of one yearly payment.
RTC Executive Director Dean Lookingbill said the change won’t affect how the agency operates. The county’s contribution makes up a small percentage of RTC’s $1.38 million total budget, he said. Much of the agency’s funding comes from federal and state sources, he said, with additional local contributions from the county, city of Vancouver and C-Tran.
All three county commissioners have a seat on the RTC Board of Directors.
On Tuesday, Madore asked to have the RTC annual payment amended to quarterly payments. Mielke seconded the motion, and Stuart asked why.
Madore said moving the payments to quarterly would “even out the cash flow” and create stability as the county pays its bills.
“The other (reason) is to ensure that the voice that we as commissioners have, on any organization, that we always ensure that we are in agreement with the direction that organization is going,” Madore said.
Madore said such an arrangement gives the county “leverage,” and then used the word “stick.” He clarified after Stuart jumped in.
“We as commissioners have carrots and sticks. And the ability to pay on a regular basis for any organization in public funds is a carrot or a stick,” Madore said.
Stuart said he’d welcome a conversation about a different approach to level cash flow, but that doesn’t appear what this is entirely about.
“I don’t feel that using the public’s resources as a bait or as a stick is appropriate when you talk about infrastructure as the underpinnings for economic development,” Stuart said. He later said he’s “disturbed” by such a move.
Madore said he’s only reserving the ability to use that “stick.”
Madore then brought up the CRC, which he said will kill jobs, cost money and hurt the county.
“If any organization uses our funds — when I say our funds, the county funds — to advance that, especially in opposition to what the people have spoken — they have spoken at the ballot box — I cannot in good conscience support that organization with the taxpayer funds to do that,” Madore said.
Madore didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comments.
Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.