The scrum to operate Spokane’s East Central Community Center has led to complaints this summer of bias in the city’s selection process, including some targeting a sitting Spokane City Council member.
Two committees formed by the city came to conflicting conclusions about who should operate the center, which provides after-school day care, services for seniors, a food bank and other assistance programs at 500 S. Stone St.
One review favored the East Central Community Organization, the nonprofit that has run the center since 2012. The other, begun after questions were raised about the first panel’s impartiality, chose the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, headquartered about two miles away on Sherman Street on the lower South Hill.
East Central and the MLK center were the only two firms that applied to run the facility after the City Council approved a single-year contract that expires in December. That contract included the requirement that a bidding process begin to determine who would run the center after that.
The first panel reviewing the contracts included former NAACP President James Wilburn, who the MLK center says favored existing management, and City Councilman Breean Beggs, who the East Central group says is biased against their firm.
J.J. Jalinek, executive director of the East Central Community Organization, said her group has been in limbo for more than a year, since the city first began its review of the nonprofit’s performance on measures including community engagement and fundraising. Notification that the second committee had recommended not awarding a new contract hit the organization hard, she said.
“This last one was really the roller coaster,” Jalinek said.
Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the city, said this week that no decision had been made, and any recommendation from city staff would have to be approved by the City Council.
“The process is still ongoing. That’s where we are,” Coddington said. He confirmed there had been two groups reviewing the contract proposals, one in May and the other in August, and said that sometimes complications arise requiring two rounds of review for contract bids.
The MLK center began as a youth facility operated out of the basement of the Bethel AME Church of Spokane in 1970. The nonprofit operates a preschool, after-school programming for elementary students, summer youth programs and administers several income assistance programs out of a former firehouse it moved into in 1985.
Freda Gandy, executive director of the center, did not respond to calls for comment for this story. A letter sent by the MLK center on July 17, signed by Gandy and MLK Board President Marla Hoskins, states the group intended to file “an official protest” of the city’s decision to award East Central a new contract at the end of this year. The letter alleges Wilburn had testified in support of the East Central group at a City Council meeting in January, tainting the original review committee with “extreme prejudice.”
At that meeting, as the council was considering whether to extend the contract, Wilburn testified he supported “the East Central Community Center” and was working with center employees on business development opportunities along Fifth Avenue and a truancy program for Spokane Public Schools.
Wilburn said he made City Hall aware of that testimony before serving on a review panel for the proposals, hoping to head off claims he was biased. He called the current selection process “tainted” and said he’d originally advocated on behalf of the MLK center.
“I would love to have an African-American run the center, but I was looking at the best proposal,” said Wilburn. The proposal from the existing operators included services for all segments of the community, not just child care, he said.
According to the U.S. Census, the black population of the neighborhood surrounding the East Central Community Center is about four times greater than Spokane County as a whole.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he met with members of the MLK center this summer, along with the mayor’s office, and requested another review of the proposals. He provided a written account of the testimony that Wilburn gave at the council meeting, and emails with city staff indicating Wilburn would not sign a conflict of interest form requested by the city.
“To me, when there’s evidence of bias, it means we should start over,” Stuckart said.
The second review committee met in August, with all new members that didn’t include Beggs or Wilburn. After a single presentation to the new group, Jelinek said a few weeks later the city informed her organization, which had been celebrating its successful bid in June, that it had lost out in the second bidding process to the MLK center. At that point, the group hired the office of local attorney Bob Dunn, which issued its own letter threatening legal action for bias against the existing operator.
“They basically reached a decision and a vote on the recommendation in a very short span of time,” said Alexandria Drake, an attorney with the office of Dunn & Black handling the case, in reference to the second committee review.
That letter targets Beggs, who served on the first contract review committee last year and again on the first team looking at the proposals this spring. The letter alleges Beggs’ involvement raises “serious conflict of interest issues” because of campaign contributions he received from a member of the MLK center’s board and his perceived bias against the existing operators in his service on the committees.
Beggs said the contributions, totaling $2,000 from fellow attorney Bill Maxey and his law firm, had nothing to do with Maxey’s service on the MLK center board.
“I never discussed the Martin Luther King center or (East Central Community Organization) with him,” Beggs said, adding the contributions came after he’d completed his work on the review board.
Maxey called Beggs “a friend and colleague” and said his contribution had nothing to do with his nonprofit work.
Beggs also said he wasn’t part of the decision to redo the bidding process, and that he’d worked with members of the East Central board to prepare a successful bid to continue services at the center.
“I don’t think any council members spent more time with them than me,” said Beggs.
Coddington said there was no timeline for council approval of a contract, but Stuckart said he intended to bring an agreement up for a vote within the next month. The current contract with the East Central organization expires at the end of the year.
“We’re going to do our best to try and retain the contract, also realizing that it could be taken away,” said Jalinek.
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