Pierce County Landmarks Commission will revisit preservation grant applications in public forum

A Pierce County division manager has decided today to void a recommendation made earlier this month by the county’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission (LHPC) to award $170,000 in preservation grant funding to 15 organizations county-wide over concerns that the conditions of their meeting may have violated Washington State’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Interim Planning and Land Services Division Manager Sean Gaffney, who oversees the county’s historic preservation office, told the Index today that he has directed the county’s historic preservation officer to schedule a commission meeting and discuss grant applications and funding recommendations in a public forum in the near future.

“We’re going to start over,” said Gaffney.

On Saturday, July 12, the LHPC met to review 22 grant applications for projects county-wide, and came away from that meeting with their funding recommendations to the Pierce County Executive. However, the county failed to issue a public notice of the meeting, nor was the public advised of the closed-door nature of the meeting, as required by state law.

Though the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) affords governing bodies the ability to meet in so-called “executive session” and behind closed doors, they can only do so under the condition that the governing body issues a public notice announcing the date, time, and “business to be transacted” during that meeting. Even then, discussion items are limited to personnel and land acquisition issues. The OPMA also allows meetings to be held without notice in the event of an emergency, such as fires, floods, or earthquakes.

On Wednesday, Pierce County Historic Preservation Officer Julia Airyang Park confirmed the commission met to make its recommendations without public notice. She said a Pierce County attorney advised her that a public notice wasn’t necessary because it was a special meeting called by the LHPC chair.

“The law states special meetings are required to be open to the public, with notice given to each member of the governing body,” said Timothy D. Ford, open government ombudsman for State Attorney General Rob McKenna. “Plus it has to be given to each local newspaper of general circulation, and each local radio or television station, which has a written request to be notified of the special meeting.”

“Any member of the public should have every right to attend and listen to what’s going on,” said Gaffney. “Typically, we advertise our meetings in the newspaper. At a minimum, you are supposed to advertise it. I’ve seen enough of what happened that I have directed Julia to call the commissioners and reschedule. I think that’s the right thing to do. We talked to our legal counsel and want to err on the side of more transparency.”

The issue presents a hurdle for a grant program currently in its first year and attempting to get up and running.

“The situation saddens me because it’s a wonderful new program, and the first time out of the gate, decisions were made behind closed doors,” said Pierce County Councilmember Tim Farrell, who is also a historian and preservationist. “I think the county may have violated the Open Public Meetings Act. If that’s the case, we need to re-open the process.”

On July 14, Park sent an e-mail to all grant applicants announcing the 15 organizations, and one contingent organization, that were recommended to receive funding. The recommendations and a resolution to authorize the funding was expected to reach the county executive’s office this week, according to Park. It was then expected to be forwarded to the full county council.

According to an e-mail sent July 14 by Park to all grant applicants, the LHPC came away from its meeting with grant funding recommendations for the following organizations and their projects:

— Artifact Conservation – Fort Nisqually ($4,500)

— Historic District Signage – Town of Steilacoom ($14,434)

— Wilkeson Centennial Monument – Town of Wilkeson’s Wilkeson Centennial Committee ($10,000)

— Browns Point Light Keeper’s Buildings Preservation, Safety and Security Improvements – Points Northeast Historical Society ($6,325)

— Restoration of Anderson Island School – Anderson Island Park and Recreation District ($25,000)

— Bonney Lake Historical Markers – City of Bonney Lake ($8,750)

— Gig Harbor WPA Facility Re-Roofing – City of Gig Harbor ($15,776)

— New Roof for the Prairie House Museum Building – Spanaway Historical Society ($4,879.68)

— Newspaper Clipping Preservation – Tacoma Public Library ($7,000)

— Downtown Puyallup Historic Facade Program – Puyallup Main Street Association ($22,000)

— F/V Shenandoah Restoration – Harbor History Museum ($25,000)

— Allen C. Mason Plaza – Tacoma Historical Society ($25,000)

— Wagon Shop Restoration – Steilacoom Historical Museum Association ($5,000)

— Reroof Historic 1912 Farmhouse – Anderson Island Historical Society ($5,498)

— The Anderson Homestead Cabin Restoration – Pioneer Farm Museum ($15,000)

Another application, submitted by Lakewold Gardens and requesting $25,000, also received the LHPC’s recommendation. However, it is being held in a contingency status in case another project is not completed.

Additionally, the six organizations and their projects that did not receive grant funding recommendations include:

— Restoration of Burnham & Root (Luzon) Building – Gintz Group ($25,000)

— Inventory of Tacoma’s pre-1960s schools – Historic Tacoma ($16,500)

— Steilacoom Historical Education Foundation – Chloe Clark Memorial Project ($10,000 – $15,000)

— Chang Arts Center – Hilltop ($25,000)

— ADA accessible additions – Universalist Church / Center for Spiritual Living ($12,000)

— University of Washington Tacoma – Tacoma Community History Project ($25,000)

Funding for the grant program traces back to the state Legislature, which passed a law in 2006 directing $1 of a $5-dollar filing fee toward general historic preservation. As of last year, the county had accrued approximately $912,000. Approximately $342,000 was directed to county departments for document storage and retention, leaving $570,000 for preservation.

Last fall, an ad hoc committee of preservationists recommended the funds be used to conduct a county-wide survey of existing historical buildings; identify historic documents within the county in danger of being discarded or destroyed, and preserve them; turn the county’s half-time preservation officer position into a full-time job; hire a dedicated half-time grant writer; create a grant program; and increase the number of landmarks commissioners from nine to eleven.

In April, the Index examined the issue of Pierce County historic preservation in a feature article published in this newspaper (“Behind The Times,” 04/02/08) and on http://www.Exit133.com .

To read the article, visit http://www.exit133.com/3064/behind-the-times .