As September 30th approaches, 151 local applicants are waiting in anticipation for the announcement of who will be awarded ARPA Grant funds for their eligible community work. In 2021 Yakima County was allocated $48.8 million dollars in ARPA funds from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan Act in order to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic response and economic recovery in our community.
Yakima’s county commissioners (Ladon Linde, Ron Anderson and Amanda McKinney) agreed to a process for vetting applicants and painstakingly created a website detailing under what criteria and exactly how community organizations could apply. All applications were due June 24th, 2022 and over $155,000,000 million were requested. The first announcement of funds recipients is set for this Friday!
But one organization, Yakima Valley Conference of Governments (YVCOG), has already been promised $2.8 million of those ARPA funds for their Regional Crime Intelligence Center (RCIC) as a result of a 2-1 decision initiated by Commissioner Linde, outside of the Regular Agenda Meeting, at a work session on July 15th.
For those unfamiliar, YVCOG was formed in the 1960’s to work on local issues through the Interlocal Agreement Act (ILA), which allows government agencies to collaborate on programs that affect all communities in a region. They have historically provided fee-based services to local governments, such as transportation services, geographic information services, grant services, and strategic visioning facilitation.
So why was YVCOG approved for funding before the September 30th decision date? We emailed Commissioner Linde asking for an explanation of the reason that YVCOG earned the privilege of cutting in line in front of other community organizations and nonprofits. We received no reply.
Commissioner McKinney, however, was willing to take the time to explain to us at Accurate Perspective (AP) her reasons for voting “No” on the early approval of funds for the RCIC. McKinney says she was blindsided by the premature motion for a vote, which was out of line with the agreed process, and that it had nothing to do with whether she believes the concept of a local crime lab is a worthy recipient of the funds. “It was completely inappropriate to pull one application out of 152, knowing that neither the commissioners, finance director, or staff had even read that application yet,” McKinney said.
“I am emphatically in support of law enforcement and giving them the tools needed, but we need to make sure we slow down and ask, “Are we doing it the right way?” But that conversation never got to happen,” McKinney lamented.
Cutting in line for funding, however, is not the only concern that McKinney shared with us about the RCIC proposal. “I’m concerned about the structure,” shared McKinney. “Why don’t we take the time to figure out how to do it in a way that the voters can see more clearly. I just want to see them do it in a form that doesn’t create a very confusing bureaucracy for the voter.” Although YVCOG appears to function like a local government agency, their employees are not elected and therefore not accountable to voters. Additionally, YVCOG executive boards govern large regions, crossing multiple jurisdictions, making it harder for voters to keep problems in check through elections.
For this reason McKinney feels very passionately that any shared resources used by law enforcement in our county should be under the direct purview of the Yakima Sheriff’s office and the authority of the Yakima Sheriff, including the ability to hire and fire personnel. “That’s because the sheriff is elected by the people,” emphasized McKinney.
The RCIC would be governed by an executive board including the county sheriff and the participating city’s police chiefs, each having one vote for all decisions made. As an independent lab, its decisions would also be insulated from both county commissioners’ and city council’s decisions. How is the voter able to influence a situation like this, given that the sheriff is the only board member that appears on the voter’s ballot? Not easily, we argue.
The internal authority structure of the RCIC has been drawn into question as well. The RCIC, as proposed, would be run by YVCOG and requires the funding of two full-time crime analysts reporting to YVCOG, which troubles Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray.
Murray expressed concern to us that YVCOG does not have expertise in either law enforcement or analytics. He pointed out the need for clarity of duties and responsibilities and highlighted in an official statement (which he emailed to us) several other important questions that make this reporting structure problematic. “Who is the boss? How would the crime analyst decide what to analyze? How would they choose between a project sent from Zillah, Wapato, Yakima or the Sheriff’s office? and
How would the work and analysis be evaluated or shared?” he asked. Murray elucidates, “There has been no clearly stated scope of work for them, no structure of reporting or authority and, working for YVCOG, there is no mechanism to end their employment if this experiment fails. That is a very high cost and a high risk which does not appear fully vetted or planned.”
McKinney had similar questions about the RCIC such as:
“Who owns the crime lab? Who owns the equipment? And who controls the data?” Although the $2.8 million in ARPA funds is pre-approval for the RCIC, the contract is still being worked on because of these unanswered oversight and governance structure questions. YVCOG will, however, receive a first installment of about $400,000 when these questions get ironed out, says McKinney. This ambiguity was not allowed, however, for the other 151 grant applicants.
Although Chief Murray believes in collaboration to fight organized crime, he stated “I believe this concept (RCIC) is not beneficial to the Yakima taxpayers as presented,” adding that they “should not pay for services they already receive.” The WA state crime lab already provides laboratory services and the city of Yakima currently employs their own crime analysts.
McKinney desperately wants to provide all the tools available for law enforcement officers to do their jobs well, but rightly observed, “Isn’t this also a sign of poor state legislation that we are tempted to create our own privatized law enforcement enhancement tools because we just can’t get what we need from the state crime lab?”
Proponents of the RCIC, including Yakima Sheriff Bob Udell and Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic, argue that the state crime labs are back-logged and results take far too long. However, McKinney suggests that, instead of creating more bureaucratic problems, she “would love to see us advocate for legislation at the state level that bolsters our state crime lab.”
The other huge unanswered question about the RCIC is that of financial sustainability. The RCIC proposal is dependent on the buy-in of the majority of Yakima county municipalities committing to annual membership fees in order for it to pencil out. Currently, the city of Yakima is not convinced of the beneficiality of the proposal as it stands, and given that its contribution would be the largest out of all municipalities, this could threaten the viability of launching the RCIC, or shut it down if Yakima decided to pull out in the future.
Merely securing the funds to open a crime lab does not guarantee it will stay open or continue to provide all the promised services. The recent decision to end DNA testing at the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab in Dayton, Ohio, for example, came down to being unable to hire a qualified technical leader for two years. Fulfilling this position is a requirement for the lab to meet federal accreditation standards. This lab, just like the proposed RCIC for Yakima, operates on a fee-for-service model so it depends on a variable income. “Sometimes people looking for positions would see that kind of business model and want to take a pure government position with more stability,” admitted Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger.
When Accurate Perspective reached out by email to Ladon Linde, to ask him how he saw the RCIC crime lab being financially solvent in 5-10 years, we again received no response. Although he felt it was urgent to motion for an early vote on the matter, the funding of a poorly designed RCIC could end up wasting Yakima’s desperately needed ARPA funds for COVID recovery in the event that the RCIC cannot deliver on its promises. Perhaps respecting the Yakima County ARPA fund application process and being forced to justify how YVCOG would support the project long term would have helped them in nailing down their plan for financial solvency.
YVCOG is not a law enforcement agency, yet their crime analysts’ reports would become the crux of criminal investigations as Sheriff Bob Udell stated in this live press conference (at minute 3:15), explaining, “Those analysts, with that crime software, can develop reports and tell us exactly where and who we need to be going after.” We wonder whether YVCOG is prepared for the consequences they may face when positioning themselves at the epicenter of tactics aimed at gangs and drug cartels?
YVCOG, we argue, is in the business of selling governance, sugar coated with promised solutions for our deepest problems, as long as we agree to their prescribed form of collaboration. It is a huge temptation for desperate public servants who have been cut off at the knees by poor state legislation, a history of poor county leadership, and mismanaged funds leaving our sheriff’s office with far fewer deputies than needed and our county prosecutor’s office waiting for the evidence needed to bring trials to a speedy completion.
But a degradation of the office of County Sheriff, the only elected official under oath to protect us against all threats foreign and domestic, will not go without consequences. On the contrary, the robust authority of this position is exactly what we must preserve, especially in these irrational times when parents at school board meetings are being labeled as domestic terrorists and a weaponized FBI is seeking to reach quotas of this overblown crime.
Although YVCOG claims their executive committee is “under accountability” by consisting of local elected officials, Yakima city council member Matt Brown explains that the structure of governance does not allow for direct representation of citizens or the simple accountability of being able to vote them out when necessary.
Chris Wickenhagen, the Executive Director at YVCOG, told us in an email that YVCOG “provide(s) programs and services to members, who consist of the elected officials in each municipality.” When we asked how they can ensure that the local community is a stakeholder in the RCIC, Wickenhagen confirmed “That is not the role of YVCOG.”
Looking beyond Yakima, we at AP wondered if there was a bigger agenda motivating our nation to expand regional crime fighting? Commissioner McKinney shared with us that within a few days of the RCIC grant fund approval going through, she received an email from a group similar to YVCOG in another part of the country who was interested in knowing how Yakima got this passed. “So it is definitely something that people apparently are trying to do,” she affirmed. This is an issue worth exploring and Accurate Perspective looks forward to expounding on this in a future Part 2 article on the specific dangers of the national trend toward regional governance structures in fighting crime.
In the meantime, if the YVCOG Regional Crime Intelligence Center proposal causes you to have questions or concerns, please reach out to your sheriff, county commissioners, and city council members and let them know your thoughts!
Disclaimer: As a city councilman, Matt Brown also is a member of our team and editorial board, it’s important that we state this article does not reflect the majority opinion of the Yakima City Council as they haven’t had an official vote on this subject yet. It reflects the opinion of the editorial team at Accurate Perspective.