Aberdeen council reiterates: No funding for Glow

Request to reconsider decision to nix funding struck from Wednesday’s agenda

Given a chance to reconsider a decision from seven weeks ago, a majority of the Aberdeen City Council Wednesday evening held firm in its belief that the nonprofit led by Mayor Doug Orr should not be eligible for city lodging tax funding.

The council voted 9-3 to strike the topic from Wednesday evening’s agenda during the first few minutes of the council meeting, dampening any full-fledged discussion around the conflict-of-interest issue cited by council members in previous meetings.

Orr, who serves as president of the Harbor Art Guild, applied for lodging tax funding last year to help produce two summer festivals in downtown Aberdeen in 2024. Orr said Wednesday the guild would not be able to put on the Aberdeen Art Walk without city support, while the status of the Rain Glow Festival is still uncertain.

The council expressed concerns in December after the city’s lodging tax committee recommended $10,500 between the two festivals for the Harbor Art Guild. In January the council voted not to award any funding to the guild due to Orr’s role as leader of both grant donor and recipient, citing a broad city charter outlawing overlapping interests that trumped existing avenues for moving forward.

Councilor Stan Sidor, the city’s finance committee chair, who made the initial motion last year to not award funding for the guild, also brought the request Wednesday evening for the council to reconsider.

“In one of the recent council meetings, I heard many, if not most all the council indicate that they were in favor of the Harbor Art Guild projects, and that if there was a workaround that could be found for the potential or actual conflict of interest issue under our city charter, that we could move this forward,” Sidor said. “I have worked to strive toward a workaround. I don’t know if it would be considered perfect, but we made some efforts toward that, and I would like the council to leave this on the agenda and have a discussion and consider this request.”

In a letter to the council, Sidor said his request to reconsider came “in light of new information now available,” including communication with the State Auditor’s Office, clarification that Orr would not be profiting directly from Harbor Art Guild events and input from “concerned citizens” and council members.

A spokesperson for the auditor’s office said it “didn’t offer a written opinion on the specifics of these grants and whether it would be appropriate to award them to a particular organization,” but directed the city to a set of government regulations that deals with accounting for transactions between a government and “related parties.” The section reads that “transactions between related parties commonly occur in the normal course of operations.”

According to Sidor, the regulations laid out a process for legally and openly disclosing potential conflicts of interest.

State law also makes exceptions for conflicts of interest, including if a city official is a “non-salaried” officer of a nonprofit.

The new information didn’t change the opinion of Councilor Debi Pieraccini, who repeated an argument from earlier discussions — that the city’s hands were tied by a two-sentence charter strictly forbidding direct and indirect interest between city officials and city contracts. The charter states that a violation would warrant removal from office.

Pieraccini, who made the motion to strike Sidor’s request from the agenda, read the city’s charter to the council and cited a section of the Revised Code of Washington that gives the city charters higher authority than state law in a section covering ethics for public officers.

“The charter is very clear, it’s very black and white,” Pieraccini said. “It’s not that I’m against this at all. I am funding out of my own pocket to raise money for the Rain Glow because I believe in it, I think it’s a great project. But if we approve this for one officer then we have to approve it for another.”

She concluded, “I just don’t feel good about it, and I will vote no. Doug knows I care about him, and I care about the Rain Glow. But I also care about our laws, and I have to obey our laws.”

Councilor Liz Ellis, who voted to keep the request to reconsider on the agenda along with Sidor and Scott Prato, said the council should give the workaround a chance.

“I agree that laws are there to be followed,” Ellis said. “There’s also procedures that are in place for how to do that. The state has come up with a procedure that when there is a conflict of interest, it spells out how that needs to be acknowledged, and for that person to remove themselves from any decision-making. As a council, we’ve done this before when there are conflicts of interest that pertain to council members. I see this as another opportunity, for in this case Mayor Orr, to recuse himself when this comes up if it moves forward for our vote.”

Ellis added, “I’d like to see us address this in an open way and then move on.”

Aberdeen Sunday Market

The council swiftly approved grant awards for other nonprofits in December, dishing out $55,000 for seven other community projects. Those awards followed recommendations from the city’s lodging tax advisory committee, which evaluates grant applications for lodging tax, the revenue generated by stays at hotels.

At its last meeting the council approved an additional $5,000 for this year’s state Little League tournament in Aberdeen, bringing 2024’s awards to about $60,000 out of $90,000 the city budgeted for community projects.

After the Aberdeen Sunday Market, a weekly farmer’s market downtown, received half of its $8,000 lodging tax request, it launched an online fundraiser stating it was at a “critical mass for functionality.” The market considered pairing down the amount of days it would be open this summer.

During Wednesday’s meeting the council agreed to write a letter of support for a grant application by the Grays Harbor Conservation District intended to support the market. District Manager David Marcell said the GHCD plans to apply for a $10,000 technical assistance grant through the National Association of Conservation Districts that would allow district staff to study “how that market’s run, maybe how we can keep it running, no matter what.”

That could lead to grants of a larger amount to help implement the market, Marcell said.

“My vision really is to get a bigger, better market,” he said.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.