Clallam County denies lodging tax fund accusation

Clallam County commissioners took umbrage with accusations of “backroom deals” before awarding a third round of lodging tax grants to organizations affected by COVID-19.

Commissioners voted 3-0 on June 15 to award nine grants to eight nonprofits or events that have been saddled by pandemic restrictions.

Sequim Museum and Arts Director Judy Reandeau Stipe and Katherine Vollenweider, the museum’s former director, complained in the meeting that Forks Timber Museum was in line to receive hotel/motel tax funds for capital improvements to its city-owned building.

Stipe said she was told by Commissioner Randy Johnson two years ago that the lodging tax funds could be used only for advertising or events.

“I need a piece of that,” Stipe said during a public comment period.

“I have three buildings. One (was built in) 1892, and it needs some help from the county.”

Vollenweider accused commissioners of arranging a “backroom, good-old-boys, sweetheart deal” for the West End museum.

“If the county commissioners release funding to pay for capital improvements to a city building, that line of funding will also have to be made available to the city of Sequim and to the Sequim museum in order to be an equitable use of public tax funds,” Vollenweider said during her testimony.

“The waters are opaque as ever, and I think it’s time for all of us to be sweethearts,” Vollenweider added.

“I think it’s time for everybody to be invited to the party.”

Commissioners addressed the accusations later in their meeting after Stipe and Vollenweider had left the room.

Johnson said the grants were recommended by the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee in a public process and were vetted by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“When I hear people say ‘You’re doing something in the backroom,’ it kind of always upsets me,” said Johnson, who also serves on the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC).

“We’ve reviewed these (grants). We take it very seriously. We do not do it in a closed room. We advertise it to the public. Enough said.”

Commissioner Mark Ozias said state law — Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Section 67.28.1816(c) — states that lodging tax funds can be used for “operations and capital expenditures of tourism-related facilities owned or operated by a municipality or a public facilities district.”

“I also cannot not comment when accused of being part of a backroom club, old-boys network,” Ozias said.

“I understand people’s frustration when something catches them off-guard, but nothing could be farther from the truth in this case, or really in any other that I have observed here in the county.”

County advisory boards meet in public and operate under the Open Public Meetings Act, Ozias said.

LTAC and other advisory board meetings are broadcast and archived with agenda materials on the county’s website at clallam.net/features/meetings.html.

“While they’re not in the room anymore, I would ask all those, before they make such significant accusations, to take the time to learn a little bit more about the process,” Ozias said, “because those sorts of accusations, when made publicly, can really be destructive.”

“If they accurately describe the situation, that’s one thing,” Ozias added. “If they are a complete mischaracterization of the situation and process, then that’s another.”

Forks Timber Museum submitted an $81,460 grant application for infrastructure improvements and advertising the fact that it had reopened after being closed for COVID-19, according to the May 13 LTAC meeting packet.

Commissioners Tuesday awarded two grants to Forks Timber Museum using hotel/motel tax funds — a $17,583 “Keeping the Lights On” grant for COVID-19 and a separate grant of $67,142 for building improvements.

“I do thank both commissioners for supporting the same objective I have, and that is transparency with our citizens,” said Commissioner Bill Peach, who represents the West End.

Last year, commissioners approved two rounds of Keeping the Lights On grants to local nonprofits affected by COVID-19. The first grants were awarded in April 2020 and the second batch was authorized in July 2020.

Commissioners approved a third round of Keeping the Lights On grants Tuesday.

They were:

• 13,100 to Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival.

• $17,583 to Forks Timber Museum.

• $25,000 to Dungeness River Audubon Center.

• $20,000 to Forks Old Fashioned Fourth of July Committee.

• $11,309 to Feiro Marine Life Center.

• $5,000 to Lincoln Park BMX Association.

• $15,850 to Sequim Irrigation Festival.

The other hotel/motel tax grants that commissioners approved Tuesday were:

• $40,000 to Forks Chamber of Commerce for a new website and new roof for the Forks Visitor Information Center.

• $67,142 to Forks Timber Museum for building improvements.

Johnson said the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee did not envision a fourth round of Keeping the Lights On grants.

“They left it open, but we’re hoping this is the final round,” Johnson said in a June 7 work session.

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