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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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City Council gives East Central Community Center contract to MLK Center over concerns about bias

Oct. 16, 2017 Updated Mon., Oct. 16, 2017 at 11:13 p.m.

Elijah Belcourt, left, leads a youth athletic activity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, at East Central Community Center in Spokane, Wash. The Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center took over operations of the center on Jan. 1. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Elijah Belcourt, left, leads a youth athletic activity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, at East Central Community Center in Spokane, Wash. The Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center took over operations of the center on Jan. 1. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center will assume operations of the East Central Community Center, though lawmakers admitted the city botched its recruitment process.

The Spokane City Council voted 4 to 2 on Monday night to award a four-year contract to the nonprofit, which was the only firm to compete with the existing operators, the East Central Community Organization, to run the aging facility at 500 S. Stone St. The council approved the contract – which pays MLK $350,000 in each of the first three years and then $315,000 in the fourth year – over objections the city’s process had been tainted by bias and pitted the two organizations against each other, undermining efforts to bring the neighborhood together.

City Council President Ben Stuckart and councilwomen Candace Mumm, Amber Waldref and Lori Kinnear voted to approve the contract. Councilman Mike Fagan and Councilwoman Karen Stratton voted against.

Councilman Breean Beggs, who was involved in reviewing the contracts and has been accused of bias in the process, abstained from the vote.

Freda Gandy, executive director of the Martin Luther King center, embraced supporters after the vote.

“There’s a lot of repair that needs to be done. There’s a lot of relationship building that needs to be done,” Gandy said. “Change is hard for everyone. It definitely is, and I plan to do the work.”

The City Council approved a contract bidding process earlier this year after electing to give just a one-year extension for the East Central organization, which like Gandy’s group has operated in the impoverished neighborhood for decades. The organization took over operations of the center in 2012 from the city and faced scrutiny late last year about whether it was meeting the requirements of its contract.

The East Central group filed a formal protest letter with Mayor David Condon and the City Council on Friday through their attorneys, Bob Dunn and Alexandria John.

J.J. Jelinek, the executive director of the East Central group, told the council that City Hall had effectively pitted her organization against Gandy’s, to the detriment of the neighborhood.

“This contract is supposedly about community and unity, but the process itself has created division and discord,” Jelinek said. “It has become us versus them.”

Two committees reviewed the same proposals from the organizations and came to differing conclusions about who should run the center. The first picked the East Central group, but the results were tossed at the request of both Stuckart and the city’s Community & Neighborhood Services Division. They argued, along with representatives of the Martin Luther King center, that former NAACP President James Wilburn’s participation on the first committee created an appearance of bias because he hadn’t signed a conflict of interest form and testified about the East Central organization at a previous City Council meeting.

Wilburn took the podium Monday night and denied being biased in favor of one group or another, saying his previous appearance before the council was to discuss a truancy program for Spokane Public Schools he’d been working on. He also said the city was pitting the neighborhood against itself by pushing forward with a vote on the contract.

“That carrot that you’re dangling is separating that community, and causing a problem,” Wilburn said.

Wilburn said he’d been recruited by the city specifically because of his race, and that he’d informed officials of the testimony before they asked him to serve on the panel. Jonathan Mallahan, the director of the city’s Community & Neighborhood Services Division, said his department wasn’t aware of Wilburn’s earlier testimony when they asked him to participate and should have required a completed conflict of interest form.

“That was an error on our part, and we should have verified that had been submitted,” Mallahan said.

Gandy said the damage in the community had begun several years ago, and her organization would work to heal it.

“In my opinion, I feel like it’s already been divided. There’s been hurt the last four years,” she said. “That’s how we got to this point.”

The East Central community nonprofit has been charged in the past with failing to meet the expectations of the neighborhood, including members of the African-American community. But speakers and council members praised Jelinek and the staff Monday night before the vote to end her organization’s control of the center.

“I have great heartache over watching two wonderful nonprofits be put in this situation. So for that, I’ll just say I’m sorry,” said Mumm.

“In a time in which we should all be standing together, we remain divided tonight,” said Stratton.

Stuckart and Waldref said after reviewing the contract proposals, they believed the Martin Luther King center’s plan was superior. Kinnear, who served on the second review panel and supported the Martin Luther King center’s bid, said she hoped the fractured contract bidding wouldn’t happen again.

Gandy said her organization would begin working with members of the East Central group on transitioning to new ownership. After-school child care, a popular program at the center, will continue under the new contract, she said, rebutting claims the service would end.

“I have like 60 kids in an after-school program, that attend Grant, Sheridan and Franklin elementary,” Gandy said. “Why would I not continue that?”

The contract takes effect Jan. 1.

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