Tag: Clean City Initiative

Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work

The Seattle Parks Department, which conducts encampment sweeps and cleans up trash at encampment sites through Seattle’s Clean City Initiative, hired a company owned by a current City of Seattle employee to do nearly half a million dollars’ worth of encampment cleanup work, despite the fact that the company was not on the city’s list of approved contractors to perform this work and does not have any contract with the city.

The company, Fresh Family LLC, is owned by a city employee named Debbie Wilson, who registered the company with the secretary of state’s office this past May. Wilson, who worked as a parks maintenance aide for the Parks Department until taking a job with to Seattle City Light in 2017, declined to comment when PubliCola contacted her by email and phone.

Ordinarily, when a company wants to work for the city’s encampment cleanup crew, they must wait for the city to run a formal bidding process for inclusion in the city’s “blanket contract”—essentially, a list of pre-approved sanitation companies that the parks department can call on to do cleanup work. When the encampment cleanup team goes out to remove or clean up waste in and around an encampment, they are supposed to draw exclusively from this list, using other suppliers only if no company on the list is able to do the work. The only exceptions are for contracts under $8,000, which do not require any bidding process, or under $55,000, which require the city to get written quotes from three different companies.

Not only is Fresh Family not on the city’s blanket contract list, they aren’t in the city’s contractor database at all, because they don’t have a contract with the city. “There is no contract,” the Parks spokeswoman, Rachel Schulkin confirmed. Instead, it appears that Fresh Family was simply told to do the work and submit invoices to the city. As of December 2, Fresh Family had charged the parks department about $425,000 for its work, Schulkin said.

The circumstances that led the city to hire Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup company outside the ordinary process and without a formal contract are convoluted and still somewhat mysterious.

There are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

According to Schulkin, a Parks Department employee selected Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider after locating them in the city’s online business database, which includes all “companies, including women and minority-owned businesses, who have expressed interest in doing business with the City.” The database includes a column, labeled “WMBE—Ethnicity,” that identifies the “ethnicity” (or race) of the owners of Women and Minority-owned Business Enterprises (WMBEs). Schulkin said the employee misunderstood the designation “B” in this column, assuming that it stood for “Blanket” (as in a blanket contract) rather than “Black.”

As of mid-November, according to weekly “snapshots” of Clean City work provided by the Parks Department, Fresh Family was still doing encampment cleanup work, although Schulkin said the department has since stopped using the company and has informed Wilson she would need to go through the ordinary open bidding process the next time the city seeks new encampment cleanup providers. 

“We are remedying this situation with providing this employee and their team with better training on City contracting policies, reexamining our department accounting controls and contract management systems, as well as working with the City’s [Finance and Administrative Services] … to find out how we can better prevent this type of mistake, and catch it sooner should it occur again,” Schulkin said.

The Parks Department did not respond to repeated questions about which employee approved Fresh Family to perform encampment cleanup work. August Drake-Ericson, the former manager of the Human Services Department’s erstwhile Navigation Team, is now a strategic advisor for the department’s encampment cleanup team, which is headed by senior manager Donna Waters.

Schulkin characterized the error that led to the no-bid, no-contract approval as a simple “mistake” involving a misunderstanding of what the letter “B” stood for in the city’s business database. But there are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

In addition to B for Black, the city’s “ethnicity” designations include A for “Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander,” W for White, N for “Native American or Alaska Native” and “H” for Hispanic or Latino.” A link to information about what each letter under “ethnicity” stands for is at the bottom of the search page.

What the Parks Department is saying is that whoever approved Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider overlooked both the column heading (“WMBE & Ethnicity”) and the link explaining what the letters meant.

Assuming that is what happened, and that the unidentified employee in charge of deciding which companies receive encampment work believed that “B” meant “Blanket,” that employee would also have to have believed that a company that had been in existence only a few months was already part of the blanket contract. All seven companies in the blanket contract were initially approved in 2017. Continue reading “Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work”

The C Is for Crank: Durkan’s Performative Trash Pickups Amplify Toxic Narrative

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the most consistent characteristics of the Durkan Administration has been their tendency to put out numbers that present a positive story, no matter what external reality they reflect. In Durkan’s world, the trend is always positive; the arrow of good news points eternally up and to the right.

For example: When the COVID pandemic forced shelter providers to provide more sleeping space for clients, Durkan claimed the city had created “1,900 new temporary housing options” for people experiencing homelessness—even though all but 95 of those were either existing shelter beds that had been relocated or spots at COVID isolation and quarantine sites for the general public.

When the mayor claimed in her state of the city address that the city had moved 7,400 households into permanent housing, PubliCola reported that that number reflected those who remained in permanent housing plus the number of exits from individual programs, forcing Durkan’s Human Services Department to walk back that claim.

And PubliCola readers will recall the many revisions the mayor’s office has made to the number of public restrooms the city claims are open for people experiencing homelessness—revisions that, as I’ve documented, have included the addition of many portable toilets that lack handwashing facilities to the list of “open restrooms,” improving the numbers.

The latest good-news story from the mayor’s office is about the Clean City Initiative, a $3 million “surge” in trash and graffiti removal in public spaces, with a particular focus on encampments and locations where unsheltered people sleep outdoors, such as greenbelts and doorways.

Consider a counterfactual: The city launches a massive campaign to expand the trash pickup at homeless encampments so that people living unsheltered actually have an opportunity to legally dispose of their trash—much as housed people do

The mayor’s office has quantified progress for the initiatives in terms of pounds of trash collected, among other metrics; every week, Seattle residents can visit a “dashboard” where the city reports its week-to-week improvements—millions of pounds of trash removed, thousands of needles collected, thousands of square feet of graffiti power-washed away.

These numbers are out of context and misleading, because they tell a fraction of the story. But they also contribute to a politically noxious narrative that feeds into the dehumanization of unhoused people. For years, the Seattle Is Dying crowd has been framing homeless people, rather than homelessness itself, as the problem. Durkan’s emphasis on the physical detritus produced by people who lack safe places to sleep capitulates to this agenda by focusing on the symptom—litter—rather than the cause.

The Clean City program started earlier this year, but the city’s executive departments have ramped up their promotional campaign in recent weeks, via press releases, Instagram posts, and dozens of tweets featuring “before” and “after” site photos.

As a journalist, I live on Twitter, which is where I started noticing the trend this month. Here’s a tweet from the city’s Parks Department, showing workers with shovels standing inside a Pioneer Square fountain usually surrounded by people, some of them homeless, and filled with litter. In the image, the fountain has been temporarily cleansed of both trash and people.

Another tweet, also from Parks, shows before and after shots outside an unidentified building. The text reads: “The Clean City Initiative includes the Purple Bag program, trash pickup serving the unhoused. From Feb. 15-21, crews collected 71 purple bags from encampments. Added to other cleanup results, the week’s totals came to 142,575 lbs of trash & 6,605 needles.”

The photo does not show an encampment, any visible needles, or purple bags, but the implication is clear: This trash was produced by homeless people who failed to clean up after themselves; fortunately, the city came along to pick up after them.

What the mayor’s (and her departments’) obsession with numbers and before-and-after photos reflects, even if unintentionally, is less a story of constant improvement than one of ideology. By pushing the narrative that the city is altruistically cleaning up after people who can’t, or refuse to, clean up after themselves, the mayor’s office and her executive departments are contributing to the widespread, mainstream, and increasingly popular narrative that homeless people and the encampments where they live are themselves a blight that needs to be “cleaned up” or eradicated—by force if necessary. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Durkan’s Performative Trash Pickups Amplify Toxic Narrative”