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Controversial deal would shift operations at East Central Community Center

Youngsters play tag during an after school program on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, at East Central Community Center in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Youngsters play tag during an after school program on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, at East Central Community Center in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane City Council will consider giving control of the East Central Community Center to a new nonprofit, amid concerns a contract bidding process was tainted.

The panel is scheduled to consider on Monday a four-year agreement with the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center to operate the community center at 500 S. Stone St. The nonprofit would take over the facility Jan. 1 from the East Central Community Organization, which has operated the center since it split off from city management in 2012.

Both nonprofits have accused the city’s selection process of bias. Two committees were formed this summer to review the groups’ contract proposals for the center, which provides child care, youth sports programs, a food bank and activities for senior citizens.

The panels came to differing conclusions on who should run the center, and the organizations have leveled charges of partiality at former NAACP President James Wilburn and City Councilman Breean Beggs, both of whom served on the original panel reviewing the contract proposals.

Both men have denied those allegations, saying they were working to ensure the best possible management of the community center. Beggs said he’ll abstain from voting on the final contract because of the controversy.

“I stand by the portion of the process that I participated in and am hopeful that the East Central Neighborhood will experience a true community center going forward,” Beggs said.

Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan requested moving the contract to Monday night’s meeting to allow both organizations to address the accusations of bias.

Fagan said many in the neighborhood were “still shaking their heads” about the events leading to the recommendation.

“I know that ECCO, the group, they’ve had their issues in the past,” Fagan said of the current operators of the center. “I feel as though they’ve got everything rather ironed out.”

The city issued a notice they’d be awarding an operations contract to the East Central group in June. Leaders of the MLK center fired off a letter to the mayor and City Council President Ben Stuckart in July, saying Wilburn was biased in favor of the existing ownership. The nonprofit asked for a new panel to evaluate the contract proposals.

Stuckart said Wilburn did not sign a conflict of interest form before participating in the selection process, and requested a new review committee be formed. Wilburn, who also has ties to the MLK center, denies being biased in favor of either group, saying he supported the East Central group because of their superior plan to run the center.

A second panel convened in August elected to award the contract to the MLK center, prompting an outcry from the East Central group. They have threatened legal action against the city, but J.J. Jelinek, the executive director of the group, said the organization’s focus now is on requesting the council return to the recommendation made by the original review committee.

“The process has been very divisive to the neighborhood and community,” Jelinek said. “There’s been a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of feelings of distress.”

Jelinek said her staff had been told they could apply for jobs at the center under new management, and that the center’s after-school program for students likely wouldn’t be part of the new programming.

In an email, Freda Gandy, executive director of the MLK center, declined comment on the contract until after the City Council vote.

Members of the second committee that recommended the contract be awarded to the MLK center did not respond to phone calls or declined comment on their deliberations.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who supported Fagan’s request to consider the contract after public testimony, said the city’s process of arriving at a contract award was unfortunate.

“To me, it has been such a big, unfortunate issue for both organizations, and it didn’t need to be,” Stratton said.



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