Concerns raised by staff within the city’s department overseeing homeless services in Spokane have prompted Mayor Nadine Woodward to request an outside review.
Citing concerns raised by staff members within the Community, Housing, and Human Services Department, city officials have engaged with the state auditor’s office to plan a “fact-finding review” of the department’s operations, according to City Administrator Wes Crago.
The investigation, which will be announced Friday, will try to determine whether the department has allocated resources and funding in compliance with city policy; if the department has proper accounting procedures in place; and if there was any pressure to circumvent city policy.
Woodward has assigned Crago to oversee her administration’s role in the investigation.
Crago said the administration is “very committed to transparency” and felt it was appropriate to publicize the investigation “now that we’re going to move into something other than an internal process.”
Officials did not illuminate what specific concerns were aired by staff members at CHHS, which is tasked with doling out millions of dollars in grants to housing and homeless service providers every year.
The city came under scrutiny last year when former Mayor David Condon’s administration scrambled to identify locations and operators for temporary warming centers that would shelter homeless people during the winter.
The city turned to a network of warming centers rather than launch a permanent emergency shelter on East Sprague Avenue amid opposition from neighbors and unanswered questions about cost from potential funding partners in Spokane County and Spokane Valley.
Jewels Helping Hands, the fledgling nonprofit picked by the city to operate a new city-owned warming center on Cannon Street, came under fire before it even opened. Records revealed that its treasurer, Jason Green, served time in prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud in 2013 and its founder, Julie Garcia, had faced an attempted theft charge that was later dropped.
The Guardians Foundation, which had hoped to win the warming center contract, had problems of its own. When Guardians operated a city-funded warming center the previous winter, its staff was accused of soliciting and having sex with homeless people it was supposed to be helping.
Though he did not name Jewels or the Guardians Foundation, Crago said CHHS staff recently “uncovered some important questions as they looked at basic processes kind of related to bids, procurements, how contracts were made in the past.”
Crago said staff members flagged the concerns to the administration, which turned to the state auditor’s office for assistance.
“They did the right thing in the right way,” Crago said of CHHS staff.
It is not clear who will conduct the city’s planned investigation. It could be carried out by the state auditor’s office or a different third party, according to Crago. Officials have not set a timeline for the review, but pledged to make its conclusions public.
The investigation will not impact current employees, nor will it affect active contracts between the department and service providers. Instead, it will focus on decisions made prior to 2020.
The concerns were raised amid turnover not just in the mayor’s office, but within the CHHS department itself. Kelly Keenan, the department’s former director, resigned last year during the city’s frantic rush to open warming centers.
When Woodward took office, she did not clean house within the department. Instead, she appointed Keenan’s temporary replacement, Tim Sigler, to the position full time. She also appointed Tija Danzig to senior manager of CHHS. Both appointments were confirmed by the City Council.
It’s unclear what type of pressure the department may have been under to deviate from policy.
Former City Council President Ben Stuckart, who was involved in reviewing applicants, said “nobody put pressure on them,” but acknowledged the entire council called on Condon to formulate a warming center plan.
Officials expect the review to produce a set of recommended improvements, but have taken immediate action to ensure the department’s current policies are being followed.
“What we know is in 2020, we are following process and we can account for how money is being spent. The concerns, the questions are what happened prior to January,” Crago said.
Woodward, meanwhile, has pledged to form a task force to address the city’s ongoing struggles with homelessness. But officials said the review of CHHS’ activities is separate from the mayor’s plans to analyze how the city provides homeless services in 2020.
“This is all past. Current operations aren’t impacted, current staff members aren’t involved in this,” Crago said.
The city receives funding from the state and federal governments that it distributes through the CHHS department, City Spokesman Brian Coddington noted.
In addition to the third-party investigation, the city will task its project management office, which reviews the operations of other city departments, to analyze the CHHS department.
“They’ll be looking at how to improve, strengthen, safeguard, make more efficient (the department),” Crago said.
City officials said, at this point, they’ve revealed only questions that lead to more questions.
“We thought given the interest, the sensitivity of it and just the the need to be transparent, that it was better to communicate about it now,” Coddington said.
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