By Ralph Schwartz
A lot of smoke — but maybe not much fire — was generated early this week, when Whatcom County Council member Barbara Brenner called out colleague Pete Kremen on KGMI radio. She said Kremen misappropriated a $1.5 million state grant by putting it in the parks improvement fund instead of the conservation futures fund.
The state grant, which paid for the purchase of Lily Point Marine Park in Point Roberts, was to repay the conservation futures fund, which was used to buy the land up front. The council required the money go back to conservation futures in a 2010 ordinance.
Instead, county administration put the money in the parks improvement fund, which can be spent more freely.
Tuesday night, Jan. 29, Brenner had a chance to light into Kremen about the decision.
“I think you completely don’t get the point at all,” Brenner told Kremen, after his explanation about the better flexibility of the parks improvement fund. “It’s not about what fund and where, it’s about a council action that was ignored. Whether it was intentionally or inadvertently, it was ignored.”
The $1.5 million was never spent, so the controversy was one of accounting — and of transparency.
Council members and the public accused Kremen of being less than transparent. The Whatcom Tea Party in particular spoke out against the fund switcheroo.
“It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a mistake. There was intent,” said Carl Olsen. He said a vote to keep the money in the parks improvement fund would be a vote “to sweep this incident under the rug.”
Lorraine Newman said at the meeting, “This isn’t allowed in the real world of accounting that I live in. … Don’t whitewash this action.”
The council voted 6-0 Tuesday to return the money to conservation futures. (Carl Weimer was absent.)
Kris Ungern spoke at the meeting too. He said the fund switch was “nothing more than a back-door method to find funds for the operations and maintenance of the reconveyance (8,844 of state-controlled forest land around Lake Whatcom the county would assume and convert into a park). I think that’s a little bit underhanded and a little bit devious. I’d rather have things out in the open.”
When asked the following day how the money got into parks improvement, Kremen deferred to then-Deputy Administrator Dewey Dessler, who still works for the county part time as executive project manager.
Dessler was reached by phone on Thursday. He said the money was in fact set aside for the reconveyance. That amount of money could pay for 10 or more years of operations and maintenance, he said.
That year, 2010, was part of the bad times for the county budget. Dessler reminded me this was the time the county was in the midst of seeing revenues fall off by millions of dollars. The county was laying off about 150 people.
“The executive (Kremen) wanted to find a way to maintain flexibility so the County Council and the executive would have money available for management of the property without burdening the general fund,” Dessler said.
Dessler said he recalls informing the council about the fund switch and hearing no dissent. The details of when and how that information was conveyed was unclear in his memory, he said.
When Dessler was told depositing the $1.5 million in parks improvement was in violation of the 2010 ordinance, he quickly said that in that case, a mistake had been made.
“Then obviously we should have checked that,” Dessler said. “But if that box didn’t get checked, then you’re right, we should have gone back and modfied the ordinance to reflect that.”
Council Chairwoman Kathy Kershner admonished staff to “commit to transparency in government” and be more complete in the information they provide council members. Give us the whole truth, not just enough of the truth, she said, so we can make good decisions.
So what’s going on here? Are Brenner and members of the tea party engaging in a smear campaign to undermine the reconveyance? Just about all members of the public who spoke on the issue said Kremen should recuse himself from the fund vote. (He didn’t, and he voted with the rest of the council.) At least one said he should recuse himself from all votes related to the reconveyance. That could be just enough to tip the scales toward rejection of the park.
Council member Ken Mann, who disapproved of the fund switcheroo but who also favors the reconveyance, had some relatively objective perspective on the issue.
“I don’t think people in this community engage in smear campaigns lightly. I think that the people who are outraged and being highly critical were genuinely disturbed and upset by what happened and by their interpretation of the motives behind what happened,” Mann said.
What about those motives, whether they belonged to Kremen, Dessler, Parks Director Mike McFarlane (who was involved in the decision), or all of the above?
“I doubt either Mike or Dewey or Pete, if he knew it, saw it as circumventing the will of the council. I think they saw it as a strategic move to give the county and the council some operating room (financially),” Mann said.
“I’m not just willing to ascribe nefarious and cynical motives to anybody,” Mann went on to say. “I do think that was a mistake and an error of judgment, but I don’t think it was a deliberate attempt to circumvent the council at all.”