Collaboration in Civic Spheres

State auditor: Port Townsend’s finances shaky

by Matt Rosenberg October 25th, 2011

A financial audit on the city of Port Townsend released Monday by the office of Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag warns elected officials and city staff that the municipality’s finances are badly eroding.

The city of 8,925 is a distinctive and historic Northwest locale about 40 miles northwest of Seattle, known for its Victorian architecture, vibrant arts community, maritime history and as a haven for vacationers and retirees.

Its annual expenditures from 2006 through 2010 have ranged from $6.4 million to $7.6 million. The audit states: “The city is at risk of not being able to meet its financial obligations,” emphasizing that:

  • The city’s cash balance declined from $258,408 in 2006 to $40,700 on August 31, 2011.
  • In three of the last five full fiscal years (2006-2010) the city has spent more than it has taken in, with deficits of $212,841 in 2006, $64,926 in 2008 and $193,888 in 2009.
  • The city’s long-term debt has grown from $14.4 million in 2006 to $21.1 million in 2010, and in 2010 the city agreed to guarantee $625,000 of the regional fire district’s debt.

The audit states that “the city’s tax revenues and financial position have worsened because of “the downturn in the economy, the temporary loss of ferry services in 2007, closure of the Hood Canal Bridge in 2009 and the ongoing stagnation of the real estate market.”

The city hasn’t cut costs enough, according to the audit. It should draft a formal written comprehensive plan to improve its financial standing and city officials should keep a closer eye on the city’s financial performance while ensuring the plan is followed, and successful.

The city replies in the audit report that its 2012 proposed budget, to be deliberated starting in late October, would cut general fund expenditures $906,000; and reduce utility expenses $800,000 by shifting engineering overhead to a capital account, “thereby stabilizing the rates and financing of the utility.” In addition, the city says a special purpose levy vote in November, if approved by local voters, would fund the city’s debt guarantee for the fire district and “remove any further diversion of income from the general fund.” Together, if adopted, these steps will allow the city to replenish its reserves, meet its obligations and “be on a solid road to recovery” in the next three to five years, the city states.

Public Data Ferret’s Financial Management archive

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MOVE maps digital stories on diet, smoking in King County

by Matt Rosenberg October 24th, 2011

Almost 70 digital stories on healthy diet, obesity prevention and smoking prevention from Seattle and King County residents are mapped online at a new web site called Mapping Our Voices For Equality (MOVE). Featured are digital personal narratives on healthy eating in challenging surroundings, teens learning healthy cooking, finding low-cost exercise opportunities, preventing smoking in shared public spaces, and related topics. The initiative stems from a program developed by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control (CDC).

An easy mapping interface at the site lets users scan the region, then click on locations and view digital stories and videos developed by community members with the assistance of local organizations including Sea Mar, Creative Narrations, Entre Hermanos, Puget SoundOff, International Community Health Services, the REACH Coalition and the government agency Public Health – Seattle and King County. Currently, 69 stories are mapped and more are coming according to organizers. (Stories are found on the map by clicking on large icons and small multi-colored dot clusters which reveal more icons; also, all are indexed at the site’s “stories” page.)

In the Kitchen of FEEST from Mapping Voices on Vimeo.

MOVE arises from a federally-funded campaign called Communities Putting Prevention To Work (CPPW) originated by the CDC which enlists grassroots resources to develop and spread messages counteracting obesity and smoking. Both are major health risks in lower-income neighborhoods. The MOVE site also includes resources for learning, action, and developing new stories.

In a statement, MOVE Project Manager Natasha Freidus said that through the Web site of mapped stories local residents “have become more involved in creating positive changes for their communities while learning new technologies.” Added Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, “MOVE provides a forum for voices from the community as well as a visually interesting way to capture the exciting changes that are happening in King County” around public health awareness and community engagement. The map has a customizable “changes” view that lets users explore the policy changes that have occurred in King County on healthy eating and fighting obesity and smoking as a result of CPPW’s work.

MOVE has scheduled three community forums this autumn to highlight involvement in obesity and smoking prevention awareness and action. Residents will present the MOVE story map and digital stories, along with their policy priorities, to panels of elected officials. The first of the three events is “International District on the MOVE” Friday October 28 at Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific-American Experience, 719 S. King Street, Seattle. It will include neighborhood tours, free entry to the “From Fields to Family” exhibit at 3 p.m. and a community forum at 4 p.m.

Public Data Ferret’s Public Health archive

Editor’s note: Public Data Ferret or its “mother blog” site Social Capital Review periodically cover community group or non-profit news. Contact matt(at)publiceyenorthwest(dot)org.

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University of Washington’s graduation rate slows

by Matt Rosenberg October 21st, 2011

Six-year graduation rates for freshman entering the University of Washington at the main campus in Seattle had been rising for the classes of 2000 through 2003 but slowed last year as the rate for the class of 2004 dropped slightly. Overall, UW is solidly in the middle of the pack in six-year graduation rates among a representative sample, ranking 12th out of 25 peer institutions selected by Washington state’s Higher Education Coordinating Council. The information comes in a report presented at yesterday’s meeting of the UW Board of Regents, and prepared by the U’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity.

Auditor’s whistleblower reports: workers misusing state computers

by Matt Rosenberg October 20th, 2011

Five separate whistleblower investigation reports issued this week by Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag find that employees at state agencies misused their workplace computers for personal purposes. According to the reports, they used their state computers to make hundreds upon hundreds of visits to hobby, shopping, wedding, photo, auction, and personal finance sites, and to trade stocks, work for a direct sales business, administer web sites for a dance studio and photography business, do work for a non-profit, administer classes taught at a local parks department, do their taxes, and urge veterans to lobby elected officials. Of the five employees, two resigned as investigations unfolded. Three others are being investigated further by their department supervisors. Employers involved are the departments of Social and Health Services; Personnel; and Labor and Industries; and the Office of Minority and Women Business Enterprises. Each pledges to continue reminding employees of prohibitions against personal use of state computers.

Georgetown, downtown firms share in $74 million Navy contract

by Matt Rosenberg October 19th, 2011

The downtown Seattle marine engineering firm Guido Perla and Associates and Markey Machinery in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood will share in a $74 million contract awarded last week by the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command to Dakota Creek Industries of Anacortes for a new oceanographic research ship. Perla will perform final design for the vessel, and Markey will provide four winches which are used to lower crucial research equipment into the ocean. The vessel will be built in Anacortes by Dakota Creek, and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The contract has a $71 million option for a second such ship, which would go to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Up to three or four more similar boats may be later commissioned by the Navy to continue replacing its aging research vessel fleet.

Blaine Dempke, president of subcontractor Markey Machinery, said, “for a company like ours, this is about a year’s worth of work. It’s quite significant in terms of adding and retaining jobs.” Dempke declined to specify how much the company will be paid from the contract but said the amount is “in seven figures.” Markey will supply two small winches of about 20,000 pounds each and two larger ones each about 50,000 pounds. They’re used to lower research packages and remote-operated vehicles into the ocean which take water samples, coring samples and do other work.

The Next Phase For Public Eye Northwest

by Matt Rosenberg October 18th, 2011

The Seattle-based non-profit Public Eye Northwest (PEN) has just received approval from the Internal Revenue Service to operate as a tax-exempt 501c3 public charity. This will enable the ramping up of an investment campaign to sustain the organization. Formed in late 2010 first as a Washington state non-profit, PEN advances voluntary government transparency and civic education through public service journalism and community outreach work. PEN is non-partisan.

One key project of PEN is the news knowledge base Public Data Ferret, which produces plain-language summaries of recent, high-news value public documents found online. The summaries are then archived and searchable at the Ferret hub by jurisdiction and topic – and are used by media, students and researchers, government and a range of other stakeholders. Public Data Ferret is a member of the Seattle Times News Partner Network. PEN also trains student journalists, and has led forums about voluntary online government transparency for the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy, Seattle Pacific University, the U.S. State Department’s Visiting Foreign Leadership Program, groups of public affairs professionals, and others.

PEN provides free informal consultations to government officials on how to improve online transparency, and at its Social Capital Review blog – the parent site of Public Data Ferret – PEN also promotes the work of other non-profits on concerns such as literacy, public health, public lands and recreation, human rights, open government and civic engagement. Additionally and in cooperation with top scholars, PEN has begun an “open science” reporting initiative to highlight key findings of medical and scientific research from publicly-funded institutions serving Western Washington (particularly the University of Washington), and the U.S.

David Griswold, Vice-President of PEN’s 10-member board of directors, said, “now that we’ve got federal tax-exempt status we’re looking forward to reaching out for investment that will help our organization sustain its work of daylighting what the public sector does and why a lot of that matters to us all.” Griswold added, “The Seattle region is blessed with a vibrant ecosystem of innovative news providers and civic engagement programs. At the same time though, there has been an explosion across the U.S. of social media and news and commentary sites that are often entrenched in partisan warfare. This accents the need for factual, objective information from unbiased sources as a building block for public engagement, and civility in the public square. Established mainstream media still make valuable contributions, but community and non-profit actors have to step in, as well. PEN is filling an important role with its systematic focus on the stuff that slips between the cracks.”

PEN founder and Executive Director Matt Rosenberg emphasized the importance of voluntary government transparency. He said, “Mandated government disclosure through open records and open meetings laws is a cornerstone of our democracy and goes hand in hand with freedom of the press and freedom of political expression. But disclosure laws, as essential as they are, don’t currently yield the kind of baseline transparency needed. We’re encouraged to see more and more government bodies that are already starting to go the extra mile by making important documents and data available online without being required to do so by law; things such as staff memos, draft legislation, special reports, studies, investigations, audits, contracts with vendors, meeting agendas, meeting packet documents, special search tools for sets of public records, and government data sets that civic-minded software developers can turn into new, stakeholder-focused apps.”

Rosenberg added, “As a society we can always use more and better government transparency, whether it results from stronger disclosure laws, collaboration between the public and officialdom, or both. But even as we search for more sunlight, there’s already an abundance of information out there. So one big question is, ‘what do you do with transparency once you’ve got it?’ Information can be used in ways that add to today’s political polarization and stridency, or in ways that build bridges and help provide bottom-up solutions to challenges faced by those who collect and spend tax monies. Stakeholders are not ‘eyeballs’ to be marketed to; more and more they are choosing to be full-fledged participants in shaping the collective will, with a sharp eye on difficult public policy decisions we face in our city halls, public school systems, statehouses and the U.S. Congress.”

Public Eye Northwest received pro-bono representation from the Seattle law firm Foster Pepper in its application for federal tax-exempt status.

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UW Study Decodes Female Genital Cutting In Senegambia

by Matt Rosenberg October 12th, 2011

Just published in the October issue of Social Science and Medicine, a new study of communities in Senegal and Gambia over three years led by University of Washington anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan finds that the controversial practice of female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting, is not mainly performed – as has been thought – to help women become more marriageable. Instead, Shell-Duncan and her research team found that the main impetus is conforming with strongly-enforced social conventions advanced by other women in community networks who’ve already undergone the procedure. In essence, the study finds that where female genital cutting is still common, it happens because younger women must either conform to the convention or be ostracized and shunned, losing important economic and social support, and social mobility.

State Auditor: Douglas County PUD worker stole $12K in fuel

by Matt Rosenberg October 11th, 2011

Chelan County Deputy Prosecutor Doug Shae said today a pre-trial settlement involving full restitution is likely in the case of a Douglas County Public Utility District employee whoaccording to a fraud investigation report released last week by the Washington State Auditor’s Office defrauded the PUD of at least $12,384.68 by using its fuel credit cards to repeatedly buy gas for his private vehicle over a stretch of more than four years.