Department of Neighborhoods leader faces West Seattle neighborhood leaders @ Southwest District Council

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

It’s not the Department of Neighborhoods‘ job to get more people to apply for its matching-funds grants, its director told West Seattle neighborhood leaders Tuesday night.

But DoN director Bernie Matsuno acknowledged that a “conversation” is needed before her department tries again to make changes to the rules for who can seek the funds and the process for vetting them.

Her appearance before the Southwest District Council – with Delridge District Council members in attendance too – came shortly after a round of proposed changes was widely panned by leaders in both of West Seattle’s city-drawn “districts,” and subsequently shelved.

She faced questions about that as well as other issues, including her own status in city government, not yet reconfirmed by the full City Council despite Mayor Murray’s voiced intention a year ago to keep her on.

Her hour with the SWDC and visitors including leaders from most of West Seattle’s neighborhood councils began with a few updates, before the Q/A.

Matsuno began by saying her department will be moving out of the Municipal Tower and into the 4th floor of City Hall this August. “The space we are going to be moving into is the space currently housing the City Attorney’s Office, which is consolidating its operations … To be quite frank, I like the idea of moving into City Hall, it feels like we will be closer to the Mayor and Council, which is a good thing, and it will be easier to find us.” She clarified on a followup question that it’s the entire department except for the neighborhood district coordinators, who will remain at neighborhood centers (such as the one serving West Seattle, at 2801 SW Thistle, where the South Region coordinatorsYun Pitre, Jenny Frankl, and Kerry Wade – are based).

Matsuno also mentioned toplines of the 2015 budget, first outlined in a letter she said she had sent neighborhood leaders in September. Not as much of a budget boost as she had hoped, given the construction boom, she said, but for starters, the P-Patch Community Gardens program got an increase, enough to cover its water bill and maintain a database to help with many things from managing volunteer rosters to enabling people to sign up online. The Neighborhood Matching Funds, meantime, had been carrying a balance of $1.5 million in unspent money, Matsuno said, and the new budget moves that money to the Neighborhood Park and Street Fund, for 2014 and 2015 projects. Asked which projects that money is going to, Matsuno said she believes the affected projects already have gotten word.

The next PACE leadership academy will take applications sometime this spring, it was noted; two attendees, Amanda Kay Helmick and Tod Rodman, were in the last class. The word about this is usually shared via the district coordinators and District Councils, Matsuno said.

Asked by new SWDC co-chair David Whiting of the Admiral Neighborhood Association about the controversial Matching Fund recommendations that were strongly opposed by neighborhood leaders and shelved last month by DoN, Matsuno acknowledged that not only were people unhappy about the recommendations, they also had voiced concern about the makeup of the advisory committee involved in coming up with them. She said she didn’t think the proposals were all bad – such as increasing Small Sparks to $2,000 – but she said the thought was, “let’s just hold off and have a broader conversation before moving forward with change. … So in 2015, nothing has changed, with maybe the exception of application due dates.”

Kathy Nyland of the mayor’s office, seated next to Matsuno for a SWDC guest appearance, was asked for her thoughts on the proposed NMF changes, and she noted that West Seattle feedback to Mayor Murray’s office had proliferated as well. “Some of the changes could be good, but .. we heard people were concerned about the changes but more about the process, people didn’t know there was a conversation going on until the presentation at the tail end …some of these might be great ideas but they’re ideas worthy of a broader conversation,” so she said they wanted a more thorough process.

Matsuno added that if anyone is concerned the Neighborhood Matching Fund is going away, “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen – it’s so institutionalized in the city’s system … my feeling is, we will always have a Neighborhood Matching Fund in the city of Seattle.”

Some wanted to know more about the conversations that would ensue before potential changes came up again, and who would be involved in the process. Matsuno at this point tried to explain how the proposals had come about in the first place, saing it all dated back to a survey that went out to 300+ people after the last Large Project Fund cycle, “and in that survey we asked for feedback on what worked, what would people like to see, and would you be interested in serving on an Advisory Committee” about the NMF. About 50 people said yes, she said. The committee wasn’t “hand-picked” as some seemed to think, she said. Matsuno said she’s hoping they will continue to be involved. Nyland said they’re in agreement that more people should be involved, even people who don’t know anything about the Matching Fund. Matsuno affirmed later that they would be discussing bringing more people into the loop before considering changes again.

The questioning grew more pointed, focusing on whether Matsuno’s department was losing its connection to neighborhoods, and whether the issue of dwindling applications for the Matching Fund money was a symptom/result of that. “We can’t force people to apply,” Matsuno contended. While saying that DoN has tried to reach groups that “don’t know how to apply,” she acknowledged that effort might not have been “consistent” in lower-income neighborhoods, though ultimately she insisted the department “do(es) a pretty darn good job of trying to get as much money as possible out” to those neighborhoods.

But, she added a short time later, “I don’t think we’re ever going to have enough staff to be the outreach (arm of) the Neighborhood Matching Fund … I really think the place we can use a lot of help with the matching fund is places like this.” Neighborhood groups need to spread the word of the grants’ availability, she said, once again saying her department just doesn’t have the personnel to do that: “I would really like to go back to a time when we had nine neighborhood project managers and 13 district coordinators … I am really open to any ideas you all have about how we can get the word out more.”

A response came quickly from Junction Neighborhood Organization director René Commons: Get active on social media, which is more “modern” than putting up posters about the funds. (Though Matsuno didn’t mention it in reply, her department does have some social-media presence – including accounts on Twitter at @seaneighborhood, and on Facebook.)

Another thorny issue came up – the issue of whether the DoN should have a representative at City Neighborhood Council meetings. Matsuno said she doesn’t have the staff to commit someone to regularly attend: “It was a decision I made that we couldn’t afford to do that any more.” She said she had inherited in 2011 a department that had been decimated, with key positions cut and the number of neighborhood-district coordinators reduced (here’s our fall 2010 report on Matsuno’s predecessor discussing those cuts with the SWDC).

Pete Spalding from Pigeon Point then asked about Matsuno’s status, not yet re-confirmed by the City Council a year after Mayor Murray took office, saying he wanted to keep her in charge of the department.

She pointed out that a council committee approved her re-appointment last spring, and then gave her recap of the resulting controversy that stalled it: “I will share with you why i have not gone to the full Council – staff members raised concerns about practices in the department, complaints of race and sex discrimination. The council was very concerned about the workplace environment in (the department). I was asked to have those two complaints be investigated and resolved, and then on top of that have an organizational assessment done at DON, rightly so when you have those kinds of complaints. The complaints have been investigated, the organizational assessment has been completed and shared with the Mayor’s Office. I wholeheartedly agreed they shouldn’t go forward with the confirmation if there is any question about (the environment in the department).”

But, she said, she had no idea of a timetable for a decision on whether her reappointment would go forward or not.

Next issue: Cindi Barker from Morgan Junction brought up the city’s lack of followup on Let’s Talk, West Seattle (as reported here last month), the June event that was declared to be a chance for the neighborhood and city government to have a conversation, with robust followup. (Though much of LTWS involved Department of Planning and Development-related issues, Matsuno’s department also was involved, and she was there for the event in June.)

Barker reminded Matsuno and Nyland that LTWS had emerged as a followup to the mayor’s April 2014 Neighborhood Summitenthusiastically attended by many WS reps – but in her view had turned out to be “a big, big failure,” with no one assigned to, or given time to, pursue responses to the questions and concerns that emerged at the event. Nyland said she didn’t consider it a failure. Barker countered that, “All it did was reveal the problems within the (city departments), and we are still sitting here with all the growth and chaos happening in development, and (DPD) has done nothing to respond to the list.” She said she was ready to call for the mayor himself to come here for a community meeting.

JuNO’s Commons interjected at this point that she had been trying for eight months to get the mayor’s attention, but had not replied to a single e-mail she had sent. She even had copied staffers, she said, to no avail. “We want him to come and visit our community.”

Nyland at that point said that a few weeks ago someone had approached her to bring up an e-mail from JuNO, sent all those months ago, and said she had told them to “find time on the calendar.”

So, Barker then asked, how do they make sure an invitation for the mayor to visit the District Council gets through?

Nyland first mentioned “a web form.” No one responds to that, several in the room countered. Well, Nyland said, “you can cc me and I’ll flag it. But I’ll ask for a little patience because …”

Barker then reminded Nyland six months had already been lost, in the case of “Let’s Talk, West Seattle.”

Nyland pleaded that she’s swamped and can barely clear her voicemail before dozens more messages come in.

Matsuno stepped in and brought up one much-mentioned request from the “Let’s Talk” event, the recurring question of how West Seattle, in danger of being cut off from the rest of the city in case of catastrophe, can attract a hospital. While the DoN can’t make that happen, it can offer the matching-fund grants for people who want to explore the idea.

Shortly thereafter, the conversation with the city reps ended. A few other items of discussion at the meeting:

FAUNTLEROY BOULEVARD PROJECT: Past SWDC co-chair Sharonn Meeks from Fairmount said she had talked with City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen – the only candidate for City Council District 1 who was NOT at this meeting (Meeks said he wanted to be, but had conflicts, and plans to attend next month) – regarding the Fauntleroy Boulevard project. Its design has been fully funded, but no construction money has been identified, and Meeks said she learned the potential price tag that’s being thrown around – reportedly $18 million. But, she continued, fully a third of that was described to her as the cost of undergrounding utilities, which might not be necessary for the “gateway” project to succeed. (In fact, the cross-section shown below, from the city website, features utility poles.)

“Rather than let it die on the vine, (undergrounding) is a piece we can accept, or not,” she suggested. Meeks also thought it would be a good idea for past Triangle Advisory Group members to re-engage as the project moves toward the search for funding. More followup to come.

GRAIN ELEVATOR ART? Though it’s on the other side of the bay, a proposal for art on the port-owned Pier 86 grain elevators was pitched – supporters are looking for a letter of support. They’re seeking a city Small and Simple Grant to fund their project. “Sounds like a great idea,” one attendee suggested toward the end, and so a letter of support will be forthcoming. (Whiting won applause for, as one person put it, successfully negotiating his first expression of council support.)

The Southwest District Council meets on first Wednesdays, 6:30 pm at the Senior Center of West Seattle. All welcome.

2 Replies to "Department of Neighborhoods leader faces West Seattle neighborhood leaders @ Southwest District Council"

  • Cindi Barker January 9, 2015 (11:37 am)

    I would like to make one clarification. I have no plans to call the Mayor on this on my own behalf. The SW District Council will address the “Let’s Talk West Seattle” topic again in February. If you have a concern, opinion or response for this discussion, please go to your local community meeting or reach one of those folks with your input. If we’re not hearing from folks that you care about this topic, then we’ll just let it drop.

  • Thank you January 9, 2015 (12:55 pm)

    Although I don’t know her very well, in addition to the emergency plan work, want to thank Sharonn Meeks in how thoughtful she and others are in follow through in making sure things continue to progress forward for WS.

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