Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson says the task force she helped create was productive and proper and resulted in a road map that will mean significantly better results for regional efforts to address homelessness.

Following Salem Weekly’s article about a KMUZ Willamette Wake-Up radio program’s criticisms of the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative task force (MWHI) Carlson agreed to speak with us about the work and procedures of the 1-year+ entity that existed between January 2016 and February 2017. She says that the conduct of those on the task force was appropriate and expresses belief that its work will have a positive impact in the region.

“My hope and vision is that the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative will make a real difference in our community,” Carlson says. “Because there are so many drivers of homelessness – ranging from poverty and addictions to domestic violence – there is no single solution. For real change, it will take everyone working together, doing a few big things, but also doing many small things over time.”

A 13-month collaboration

The MWHI task force existed for a little more than one year and united four local jurisdictions – the City of Salem, the City of Keizer and Marion and Polk counties. Its objective was to identify proven strategies that would reduce homelessness and better the lives of those experiencing homelessness in our region.

The entity met monthly between January 2016 and February 7, 2017 with each of the four jurisdictions bringing five representatives for a total of 20 individuals involved in local government, business, social services and more forming the 20-person membership.

These 20 were also divided into eight subcommittees that researched targeted issues such as transitional housing, affordable housing, public safety and veterans. The subcommittees presented their findings to the group at monthly meetings, and their recommendations were integrated into the final document, a MWHI Strategic Plan. 

Finally, the four co-chairs, the leaders of each jurisdiction, Salem Mayor Anna Peterson, Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark, Marion County Commissioner Carlson and Polk County Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler, regularly conducted their own co-chair meetings to conduct administrative tasks such as setting agendas and making appointments to subcommittees.

The beginnings of MWHI

The process began in the fall of 2015, Carlson says, when then- Salem Mayor Anna Peterson approached her to help form a council to work on ways to address homelessness in the community. Carlson initially imagined the group would include only Salem and Marion County, but then heard that Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark was also interested and learned that Polk County also wanted to be involved.

“We knew it would be a huge undertaking,” Carlson says. Having worked with children, families, and poverty since the 1990s, she imagined, among other strategies, taking the best aspects of an underutilized 10-year plan developed by Polk and Marion Counties in 2008 “and to expand and deepen it.”

Numerous local entities, such as Marion County Housing Authority, the ARCHES Project, a variety of shelters and veterans groups and many others, were already doing significant work to help those experiencing homelessness, Carlson says, but “there was no one to say how to coordinate” these efforts. She hoped MWHI would change that.

Work completed by MWHI

“We spent that twelve months identifying proven strategies,” Carlson says, and the 27-page Strategic Plan was the result. Adopted February 7, 2017, it identifies 25 objectives.

For illustration, one idea is “1.5: Consider converting existing vacant buildings into affordable housing; revise zoning and/or conditional uses to allow affordable housing in light industrial areas,” and, another is, “3.2: Promote collaboration among local service providers and WorkSource Oregon to maximize workforce development.” Additionally, the plan provides timeline guidance for whether the objective should be implemented short-term (6-12 months), medium term (1 – 3 years) or long term (3 + years).

Naming objectives were a way to “get everything on the map,” Carlson says, to then debate them and endorse those with the greatest potential.

Hiring Karen Ray

KMUZ’s January 17 program suggested that improprieties had occurred in MWHI’s hiring of consultant Karen Ray, who was an additional person brought in for $20,000 at about half way through its term to move the task force forward. The radio show team examined materials gained by a public records request and said Ray and Carlson were friends and that Ray’s hiring by Carlson to do work a qualified volunteer could have done, was contrary to the directive to co-chairs that they limit themselves to administrative actions. The KMUZ team further suggested that Carlson lowered her proposal to pay  Ray from $25,000 to $20,000 to avoid a deliberative public process that would allow others in the community to submit their own bids to do the same work.

Carlson maintains that all suggestions of impropriety are faulty and that the process of hiring Ray was entirely appropriate. Not herself a friend of Ray’s, Carlson had been a colleague of Ray before, and was an admirer of Ray’s work – Carlson actually wrote her doctoral dissertation on one of Ray’s books. Carlson thought Ray’s input would be more sophisticated than a volunteer’s and, with four co-chairs and eight subcommittees in play, believed Ray would help the various entities move towards more successful implementation.

The hiring of Ray, Carlson says, adhered to Marion County’s contract rules and followed the public meeting laws of Oregon. Sending the work out to bid at the time she realized a new person was necessary would take too long for a project more than half way through its 13month term. The fee for Ray was lowered as another expediency, Carlson says, not to keep locals out but to move the process along. Ray dropped some of the tasks listed in her initial proposal so she could complete the most important ones for $20,000.

The hiring was done by Marion County as part of its leadership role in the task force, according to Carlson. Marion County consistently did, and paid for, the lion’s share of organizing and coordinating for the months the group operated, assuming the majority of cash and staff costs for creating and maintaining the web page and domain name, for paying for co-chair lunches, for building a 200-person email list, setting up conference rooms, delivering materials to meetings and other essentials because it had the most resources. It also paid the contract of another individual because “we had the most capacity,” Carlson says, especially compared to smaller entities such as Polk County and the City of Keizer.

Additionally, Carlson says, since Marion County already handles a broad scope of contracts, appropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars for every manner of agency, project and job every year, it was able to facilitate the Ray hiring most efficiently.

Polk County’s departure from MWHI

Carlson agrees with the KMUZ team in one part, saying Polk County Commissioner jennifer Wheeler did leave the group in October 2016 over her unhappiness with the hiring of Ray, but Carlson adds that the departure was also due also to personal matters unrelated to the task force. Carlson suggests the scope of Polk County’s ways of addressing homelessness, with about 800 programs compared with Marion County’s more than 10,000 perhaps meant that Wheeler’s expectations for the task force’s workings were not in line with the scale required for success in a larger region. (We contacted Polk County Commissioner jennifer Wheeler for comment this story, but received no reply.)

Additionally, Carlson notes that one co-chair leader, such as Wheeler, did not have the authority to remove a jurisdiction’s participation in a task force such as MWHI. That would require a vote of the board to rescind the charter. And, in fact, Polk County’s charter remained intact, and Polk County did continue to participate until the final meeting.

Carlson also rejects the KMUZ team’s January 17 suggestion, and Salem Weekly’s report on that suggestion, that she misled assembled task force members at the November 7, 2016 meeting, in a recording where she stated that several Polk County members “just couldn’t be here.” It is not accurate, she maintains, to say that she made that statement “knowing” that Polk County had actually departed.

In fact, Carlson’s documentation shows Polk County had not left the task force on November 7, and never did.

In one instance, although a second participant had withdrawn on November 2, Carlson had separately been notified by Wheeler that a third was continuing and Carlson was also in communication with a fourth who wrongly assumed that Polk County had withdrawn their charter overall. That fourth person wrote the afternoon before the meeting that she simply couldn’t attend that night. E-mails show that a fifth, Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton, did not decline to participate until November 27.

KMUZ’s program was not disinterested

Carlson says that Marion County and KMUZ radio have had excellent relations for many years, working together to cover issues of every variety that were important to the community. The January 17 program, she says, was different, because it was part of ongoing conflict between January 17’s Willamette Wake-Up co-host Michael Livingston and his wife, Sarah Owens, – and the task force.

Carlson provided Salem Weekly with e-mails that suggest judgmental feelings from Owens towards the group began very early on , postings she says were not productive to its work. Carlson didn’t even know Owens, she says, when she was surprised by Owens sending an e-mail to task force members, “while we were still organizing and before we had even sent the first agenda for our February 2016 meeting.”

The Owens e-mail “thanked” task force members for their participation in the MWHI and provided resources on homeless issues that many, in confusion, took to be a quasi-official orientation. Owens also posted photos of members online and remarked with skepticism on the qualifications and understanding of several.

Carlson’s e-mails shows Owens writing task force members about a meeting in which Mayor Anna Peterson is characterized as Carlson’s “own ventriloquist’s dummy” and a MWHI meeting as “a waste of time for all who attended.”

The “unhelpful” comments continued the term of the task force’s work, Carlson says, adding, “They were disturbing at times.”

She supplied Salem Weekly with an e-mail written to her in January 2017 from Commissioner Wheeler, in which Wheeler distanced herself from comments made by Owens about her online .

“Based on the tone and content of the piece,” Wheeler wrote to Carlson, “Ms. Owens appears to be building a narrative and attempting to speak on behalf of either me or Polk County as a whole regarding our involvement in the Homeless Initiative Task Force… To the extent that she is intimating Polk County’s motives or decision-making process over the last few months on this issue, it is coming from Ms. Owens’ own imagination.”

Wheeler goes on to “apologize for any problems Ms. Owens’ blogs have caused for you and the task force, it was not my intent for that to happen when I withdrew our participation.“

Wheeler says she “appreciate[s] the work that you are doing “ and closes by wishing Carlson success.

A return to KMUZ

Carlson says a transition team is currently working on the next steps of the MWHI, “putting staff support in place to make sure the work continues, guided by a policy team.” She also says the team “envisions a technical group representing the many government and nonprofit agencies involved to better coordinate the work.”

Her vision for tangible results “includes tighter organization for seeking affordable housing funding, along with long-range project planning; expanded shelter and transitional housing capacity; improved coordination of mental health and other social services for people experiencing homelessness; broader community awareness and support for school-based homeless programs; and expanded resources for runaway and homeless youth, veterans, seniors, and victims of domestic violence.”

She is interested in returning to KMUZ for another Willamette Wake-Up conversation when she has more to report on.