4Culture and the King County Council: Oversight or Overreach?

"Summer in Los Angeles" by Marilyn Montufar, on view at Gallery 4Culture though Feb. 22, 2018.

On Thursday, Jan. 25, news broke that the King County Council had introduced an ordinance to assume greater oversight over 4Culture, the independent agency that disburses millions of dollars in grant money to King County artists and arts organizations each year. The ordinance had been drafted by County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove and five other councilmembers under the presumption of routine legislation, but it immediately drew severe reactions from 4Culture supporters.

Contrary to initial reports from 4Culture advocates, there is no direct threat to the continued existence of 4Culture or its funding sources. But greater oversight by the council could threaten 4Culture’s professional autonomy and politicize its operation.

This threat comes at a time of transition for the agency. Over the next three years 4Culture’s source of funding will shift from a finite endowment ($10 million annually) to a 35 percent cut of the county’s lodging tax ($13 million annually), as approved by the State Legislature in 2011. And in March, 4Culture executive director Jim Kelly will step down after 25 years. Where the council sees an opportunity to reorient toward greater government oversight in this moment of transition, various artists and 4Culture supporters see a gratuitous overextension of political will.

Ordinance #2018-0086 proposes three primary changes to the current 4Culture charter and its bylaws in their relationship to the County Council: It establishes the Council’s ultimate approval of 4Culture’s operating budget; it assigns the Council final confirmation of 4Culture’s executive director and grants the council ability to fire a sitting director; and it gives councilmembers final approval over board members as nominated by 4Culture and the King County Executive.

Following an online outcry from the blog and Facebook page for Advocate4Culture, an independent group of citizens, Upthegrove published his rationale on his own Facebook page. “Like many of you, I love arts and culture,” it begins. Upthegrove goes on to enumerate the proposed changes and defend them as “modest accountability measures.”

“None of the changes in this proposal will disrupt or alter the good work of 4Culture—and won’t even be felt or seen by the many great organizations that receive funding and support. But what these changes will do is simply provide appropriate accountability and oversight for this county-created authority.”

4Culture has been distributing millions of tax dollars every year since at least 2001, when it transitioned from the King County Office of Cultural Resources, a government agency opened in 1965, to its current status as a Public Development Authority, or PDA, an independent corporation owned by the county. Since then 4Culture has operated as a granting agency free from the influence of politics, run by arts policy experts and professional arts administrators for the benefit of the entire county.

Reached by phone last Monday evening, Upthegrove reiterated the fact that though he’s the face of the proposed ordinance, it’s endorsed by a bipartisan super majority of the Council, six of nine, half Democrats and half Republicans. He expressed his support of 4Culture’s work and mission, insisting that the legislation is less about altering 4Culture and more directed at the roles he and his fellow councilmembers play.

“It’s being proposed by arts supporters, people who want to see the agency continue as the success is has been,” he said. “The purpose is to make sure we have the best structures in place to ensure accountability to the public. An important point that’s getting lost is that this isn’t aimed at fixing a problem, it’s aimed at improving our systems and structures. It’s not changing 4Culture, it’s changing our process with how we interact with the agency.”

To allay concerns about potential politicization of the agency, he explained that provisions within the ordinance prevent specific amendments to the budget, which can only be approved or rejected by a majority vote. He said that the council’s influence will occur at “a high enough level, far from grants funding,” that specific projects and organizations would not be affected.

Upthegrove agreed that 4Culture’s track record of audits was a positive indicator of their legacy of fiscal health and responsibility. But to his mind, the fact that the agency operates without direct supervision or influence from the council puts King County residents at a disadvantage. “There’s no action voters can take, there’s no action the county can take if anything were to happen.”

I asked Upthegrove what, given 4Culture’s solid track record and year after year of clean audits, he believes might happen. “I don’t know what it could be—the overall long-term direction and structure of the agency, how much is spent in certain categories, how the staffing is handled.” Upthegrove hesitated to come up with a specific issue. “Not necessarily a problem, but if it drifts too far away from the vision and direction of the elected officials, there has to be some accountability coming into effect.”

Per its charter, the 4Culture board must be comprised “of professional artists; arts administrators; architects; landscape architects; administrators, professionals and specialists in heritage and historic preservation; administrators, professionals and specialists in cultural education; urban planners and designers; and attorneys; and from community arts and heritage activists; and from sectors of the business community and the community at large.” These experts are appointed by King County Executive and the board, which is also required to include three King County Councilpersons as “ex-officio” members. As a career politician, Upthegrove’s primary qualification for governing 4Culture’s business is that he’s an elected official.

To illustrate the unusual nature of the ordinance, 4Culture released a chart detailing all 14 PDAs in King County. These agencies, including 4Culture, the Pike Place Market Preservation Authority and the Bellevue Convention Center Authority, operate as independent corporations owned by the county. None of them currently faces the degree of oversight that the council is proposing for 4Culture.

“Apples and oranges,” says Upthegrove. “A lot of those [agencies] don’t receive much in the way of public funds. The amount of money isn’t comparable. They’re very specific in their purposes. This is significantly more money and more purpose and as we do our research, that table isn’t entirely accurate. But we’re just starting to dive into that.”

Online research into these PDAs shows that the operating budgets of several of them are close to 4Culture’s current $10 million annual budget.

So if there’s no specific problem being addressed and only the hypothetical “drifting from the vision” of elected officials who, in reality, were never meant to exert influence over 4Culture anyway, then why introduce the legislation at all?

“A lot of it is selective perception,” said Jeanne Kohl-Welles, one of the three councilmembers to not endorse the legislation. “It seems 4Culture is being treated differently than the council would treat other PDAs.” While she’s open to allowing councilmembers into the process of nominating 4Culture board members, she does not want the ED hired and fired by the council. She said she would have to see “significant changes” in the language of the ordinance before she will support it.

“I understand why some councilmembers are concerned—they don’t receive an adequate amount of funding for organizations in their districts and that’s something that could be reviewed,” she said. “The board takes the vote on it but it’s these independent panels that review the applications and I want to keep that work independent. I think some of what is being proposed could result in politicization in how grants are awarded.”

Perhaps much of the imbroglio surrounding this ordinance can be ascribed to the sprawling expectation gap between civil servants and artists. Upthegrove seems to believe that ultimately 4Culture answers to voters, and as a conduit between voters and granting funds, the council’s involvement will strengthen relationships among all parties. Artists tend to believe that inserting the council’s influence in any capacity would inherently politicize 4Culture.

Last August voters rejected Proposition 1, or Access 4 All, a .1 percent sales tax that would’ve provided an additional $67 million to fund arts and culture access and education. Upthegrove was one of the Council’s few oppositional voices to the legislation. Yet when he was elected in 2015, one of his first big successes was to help draft “Building for Culture,” a proposal that applied $28 million in hotel-tax overages leftover from paying off the Kingdome to cultural capital-campaign projects. The money was disbursed by 4Culture to dozens of arts organizations throughout King County.

Greater governmental interest in local art projects and institutions is generally a good thing—especially when it comes from an entrenched position of support by elected officials who are also patrons of the arts. But undermining the authority of 4Culture is not only unnecessary, it sets a dangerous precedent. There’s no reason to change the formula for 4Culture when it’s been working so well for so long.

In the next step in the legislative process, the proposed ordinance will go before the Committee of the Whole, plus a panel of two or three people, on Feb. 21 at 9:30 a.m. The public will have the opportunity to comment at the meeting, limited to two minutes of speaking, at that time.