In a January 17 broadcast, reporters on KMUZ radio reviewed letters and emails obtained by a public records request that suggest that Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson and other officials in the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force (“Task Force”) acted improperly last year.

Carlson and the county say the broadcast presented factually inaccurate information, and that they look forward to a chance to respond.

The show was KMUZ’s Tuesday morning Willamette Wake Up (WWU), a public affairs program that features Michael Livingston, Sara Cromwell and Sarah Rohrs. This Tuesday group had previously broadcast numerous shows on area homelessness and previously reported on all 11 Task Force meetings.

The Task Force was a one-year collaboration between four different jurisdictions – the City of Keizer, the City of Salem and Marion and Polk counties. Its goal was to identify and launch ‘proven strategies’ to reduce homelessness in the region. It was created in January 2015, met monthly, and held its final meeting, where it adopted a strategic plan, on February 7, 2017.

Each of the four jurisdictions brought five representatives to the table, so a total of 20 people from local government, housing, business and social services formed the aggregate membership.

Four Co-chairs

The entity that was WWU’s primary focus on January 17 was the leadership team of the Task Force, the four co-chairs of the body. These four included the mayors of Salem and Keizer (Salem Mayor Anna Peterson, Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark) as well as Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson and Polk County Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler. WWU noted that while the public and media was invited to task force meetings, no one could attend, or report on, co-chair meetings. The reason given for this, WWU said, had been related to them by Janet Carlson and a county attorney who told them that the co-chairs didn’t have the authority do anything substantive, and only dispensed with basic administrative tasks like calling meetings, presiding at meetings, setting agendas, making appointments to subcommittees and so on.

But on January 17, the WWU team said their records request produced documentation suggesting that three of the four co-chairs acted in ways that significantly exceeded the limitations described by Carlson and the attorney, as well as the directive of the Task Force charter, and that the co-chair actions included cronyism, meeting law violations and a deliberate concealment of facts from other task force members.

Hiring Karen Ray

One of the earlier matters mentioned on January 17 was the process by which, last fall, Commissioner Carlson brought in consultant Karen Ray, who the WWU team described as a friend of Carlson’s and who lives in Minnesota. Ray was ultimately hired for $20,000, a fee paid by Marion County, to do work that the WWU team believed a qualified local volunteer might have handled at no charge. The hiring itself, they said, was contrary to the charter’s directive that co-chairs limit themselves to less substantive actions.

The KMUZ team said their documents indicated that Carlson took the initiative first to reach out to Ray, and then to suggest that Ray’s proposal for her contract be lowered from the initial asking price of $25,000 to $20,000. They suggested the decrease was made to avoid a deliberative public process where citizens would be aware of the hiring, and where others might submit bids.

In October, the WWU team said, one of the four co-chairs, Polk County Commissioner Wheeler, thought the issue of hiring Ray should be decided by the entire 20-person Task Force rather than just the leadership co-chairs. But the three other co-chairs hired Ray on an occasion when Wheeler was not present and without the input of the general membership. After the hire, emails read by WWU said that on October 6 Wheeler objected to meeting with Ray without including the entire task force, writing, “I do not see the benefit of attending a leadership team meeting with Karen Ray and would rather utilize my time and her time before the entire task force.”

The WWU team could find no record of a reply from the co-chairs to Wheeler’s objection. This lack of response, or perhaps the decision itself to hire Ray, (or perhaps another reason), caused Wheeler and all of the Polk County team to resign.

One Polk County member, a Salem-Keizer School District representative, remained but not, said WWU, as a member of the Polk County team.

The WWU group said Wheeler submitted a letter of resignation on behalf of herself and the others from Polk County on October 18. Wheeler’s letter, they reported, provided no explanation for their leaving. The WWU team inferred it was their displeasure with how Ray’s hiring was handled.

Commissioner Wheeler resigned

Documents showed, the WWU team said, that Wheeler asked that her resignation be forwarded to the full Task Force membership. In the documents WWU had from the public records request, Wheeler’s withdrawal was only provided to the three (remaining) co-chairs. Though Wheeler wrote twice, said the WWU team, asking if her resignation had been forwarded to the entire body, she received no reply and the resignation was never shared with the group at large.

Prior to the next Task Force meeting, which was to be held on November 7, the WWU team said that Carlson proposed to the other co-chairs a draft memorandum “update” to be provided to the wider group. Rather than acknowledging the loss of Polk County, it stated that all (four) jurisdictions were still engaged. The draft met with approval by the co-chairs.

The November 7th meeting

On the morning of the November 7 meeting Heidi Mackay, a Polk County appointee who represented the West Salem Business Association, wrote Carlson, affirming that Polk County was declining to participate in the Task Force and adding that she “also decline[d] to participate in Task Force business.” Her email was received by Carlson that morning, the WWU team said.

But at the meeting itself that night, according to the WWU team, Carlson was not forthright with the general Task Force members. WWU played an audio recording of the November 7 meeting, highlighting the words of an attendee who noted that only one of the five-member Polk County contingent was present and expressing hope that they “be brought back.”

“They came to the table for a reason, and they left the table for a reason,” he said, and asked for clarification about the absence.

The recorded response from Carlson was that though Wheeler and another member had dropped out – neither Mackay nor another Polk County member (both of whom had demonstrably also dropped out) – had resigned, explaining, “they just couldn’t be here.”

Marion County discovers broadcast

Far too many comments were made in the 34-minute WWU program for all to be noted here. However a complete podcast is available on KMUZ’s website.

Jolene Kelley, Marion County Board of Commissioners’ Public Relations Officer, said shortly after the airing, she came across the program while searching for a podcast. Because Marion County itself regularly appears on a Willamette Wake-Up every month for discussions of issues like aging, emergency preparedness, public health, elections and more, and because she  believed the county’s efforts to communicate openly had always been well received by the station – she was surprised.

She wrote KMUZ. “I was quite surprised when I listened to the program,” her letter said. “There are a number of serious allegations made toward Marion County, and other task force conveners, regarding transparency, public meeting law, and public contracting. Further, the conversation moved to accusations of cover-ups and conspiracies.”

Kelley requested the station either remove the podcast or allow the county the opportunity to respond on-air.

The station agreed, and that response was scheduled for February 21. However, KMUZ’s new landlord needed to close the station that day for repairs. A new date for the county’s response had not yet been set when this story went to print.

Marion County wants to respond

“It is important that information is presented factually, or labeled as opinion or commentary,” Kelley says. “This particular podcast included information that was either factually inaccurate, or drew conclusions based on limited information without a request for information or clarification.”

Kelley says she looks forward for Commissioner Carlson and her having the opportunity to “correct factually inaccurate information, and answer questions by the show hosts regarding the task force.”

It’s unfortunate, Kelley adds, “that this ‘hiccup’ in our work with KMUZ is the story. We’d much rather be talking about how our community is responding to homelessness. While the task force has concluded its work, there remains much to be done in order to affect real change for some of the most vulnerable in our community.”

Salem Weekly will update readers on the program in which the county speaks.

NOTE: This story is limited to presenting some of the remarks made on the January 17, 2017 KMUZ WWU Tuesday morning broadcast, and Marion County’s response.

Salem Weekly asked Michael Livingston of the WWU Tuesday team to see the documents they received by public records request and if they might be made available to our readers, and received no reply.

Here’s the link to the January 17 podcast of Willamette Wake Up on KMUZ: