The documents below tell the story of how one government agency in Washington State, the Seattle King County Department of Public Health, failed to do its job and serve the public interest.
Of course, government failures happen all the time. Unless they’re especially spectacular or costly, they’re not news. What sets this particular failure apart is the fact that the agency in question – the Health Department – had everything it needed to succeed. It had the time, the money, the expertise, the good will. And most of all, it had the experience. And yet it failed anyway.
What went wrong?
(An early success)
By the fall of 2012, the illegal squatters camp known as Nickelsville had been occupying some disused public property in the south Seattle neighborhood of Highland Park for over a year and a half. During that time, food waste, bags of pet food, and other inducements to rats had been accumulating in various places throughout the camp: around the tents and shacks, in the “ecological” compost heaps the camp’s leaders had set up, around the food storage depot. Along with a steady supply of food, the camp offered the area’s native rat population a wealth of nooks and crannies in which they could shelter and breed. And breed they did. Rats could be seen running through the camp in broad daylight and the camp’s nearest neighbors (who lived hundreds of feet away) were starting to complain.
Nickelsville-Highland Park was founded and controlled by Scott Morrow and Peggy Hotes, directors of a local “non-profit” shelter group known as SHARE. Morrow and Hotes are both intelligent people with college educations. Hotes is a teacher in the Lake Washington School District who works with children daily. There can be no doubt that these folks understand the principles of hygiene, and with children, elderly, and other vulnerable people living at under their care at Nickelsville, you would think that Morrow and Hotes would have taken steps to address the rat problem. But no. Instead, it was left for neighbors to contact the Health Department. When they did, the Department responded quickly, doing an inspection of the camp, contracting with a pest exterminator, and doing some on-site hygiene presentations to the camp residents. In addition, the Department arranged for another city office to provide Nickelsville with dozens of free metal trash cans and two hand-washing stations. Finally, cinder blocks were delivered to the camp so that camp residents (“Nickelodeons”) could raise their tents and shacks off the ground, to discourage rodents from nesting beneath them.
Of course, the rats didn’t suddenly vanish from Nickelsville. The camp was, after all, situated in the midst of a wetland that offered the local rats plenty of other food sources and hiding places. But the rat population was noticeably diminished. And better still, the Nickelodeons (if not their leaders) had gotten a lesson in the importance of personal hygiene.
Though all these benefits came free of charge to Nickelsville, they were certainly not without cost to the taxpayers. The work logs below, and other documents that I obtained from the Health Department using a Public Disclosure Request, show half a dozen or more Public Health officials devoting over a hundred hours of their time to this matter over several months:
And this is not a hundred hours of some clerk tapping on a keyboard and sharpening pencils either. This is a hundred hours of people with letters after their names. One of the lead investigators, Sharon Hopkins, is a DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine). She makes $61.00 per hour, plus benefits Sharon’s “boss,” Bill Lasby, makes $47.00 per hour. Salaries go down from there. But not by much.
If anything, my hundred-hours estimate would be a gross understatement of the total time spent on the Nickelsville rodent-control project – especially when you consider all the players involved. The last item entered by Dr. Hopkins for 2012 has this description:
Attend multiagency meeting regarding status of Nickelville public health concerns and legal status – held at Seattle City Hall.
That meeting took 95 minutes of Dr. Hopkins’ time, and we can reasonably estimate that there were at least five other high-powered staff at that meeting, so a more accurate estimate of the total time spent on the Nickelsville rat problem, just for that one day, would be at least nine hours:
6 employees X 90 minutes = 540 minutes (or 9 hours)
There were probably several meetings like that, where experts from different agencies put their heads together to work on this. All I asked for were records from the Health Department; I don’t know how many hours were spent by other agencies or the Mayor’s staff.
Rodent control cost another $9,000. I don’t know how much the trash cans and hand-washing stations cost. It’s important to understand that the money spent by Health, significant though it was, was a small fraction of the overall costs borne by the taxpayers. [See here for an account of the clean-up costs at the Highland Park squat alone.]
* * * * *
In late November, 2012, the Health Department produced a comprehensive write-up of their Nickelsville sanitary inspection and recommendations:
This document represents the sole “product” of the rat abatement effort at Nickelsville, tangible or otherwise.
Despite the price tag – and despite the fact that Mr. Morrow and Ms. Hotes should have known better than to let a rat infestation occur in the first place – I consider the rat abatement project at Nickelsville-Highland Park to have been a success. I’d go beyond that, even, and say that it was a model of good government! Consider the way it played out:
- A neighbor complained.
- The Health Department quickly mobilized and visited Nickelsville.
- They quickly produced a report and created an abatement plan.
- They trained the Nickelodeons on basic hygiene.
- They gave the camp other resources (trash cans, hand washing stations, and cinder blocks).
- They did follow-up visits.
. . . and, as a result . . .
- The rat population went down, and stayed down.
Well, yes. But read on . . .
(An inexplicable failure)
In September, 2013, as a result of increasing neighborhood pressure and increasing social chaos at Nickelsville, the Seattle City Council finally evicted the camp from its Highland Park squat. Two months before evicting the squatters, the Council allocated $500,000 to a local shelter (Union Gospel Mission) to help campers find other lodgings. Incredibly, the Council, led by Nick Licata, failed to impose the most basic accountability on the relocation program. No in-place census was taken at the camp, and, more importantly, no order was given to roll up the WELCOME mat. Quite the contrary, in fact. In an effort to subvert the relocation plan, camp leader Peggy Hotes began distributing come-one/come-all invitations (like the one below) within hours of the City Council’s announcement:
Source: Peggy Hotes’ Facebook page
By late August of 2013, after the City’s relocation money had been exhausted and one week before Nickelsville was scheduled to be evicted, the camp population was slightly above what it had been during the peak summer months, and many of the hard-core squatters, who considered themselves Nickelodeons for life announced their intention to follow Nickelsville wherever it went. Meanwhile, camp leaders Morrow and Hotes crowed that, far from allowing the camp to be disbanded, they were instead going to set up three new franchises around the city. (See the fine print in Ms. Hotes’ flyer above.)
On September 1, 2013, the newly swollen Nickelsville did indeed metastasize, into three separate camps, with two groups of squatters migrating to locations in downtown Seattle and a third moving into an unincorporated part of King County known as Skyway. Just like the Highland Park squat, all three of Nickelsville’s new squats were illegal because they had failed to apply for a permit in advance, failed to notify the neighbors, and so on. The Skyway squat was illegal on the additional grounds that it had moved onto property on which three years’ worth of back taxes were owed.
Notwithstanding Nickelsville’s failure to comply with the permitting requirements, all three of the new Nickelsville camps were granted permits to stay. The Skyway camp, which was under the jurisdiction of King County and not Seattle, was granted an “emergency permit” by the King County Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER). When I asked a DPER official named Jim Chan why he believed Nickelsville-Skyway had an emergency need, he said: “Because Scott Morrow told me.”
This, despite the fact that Mr. Morrow had had more than two months’ notice that Nickelsville was going to be evicted from Highland Park.
* * * * *
When the Nickelsville splinter group moved to Skyway, they brought with them several trash cans that the Health Department had given them at Highland Park. Unfortunately, they did not bring enough of these cans to hold all their trash or keep it secure from rats.
They also brought a few cinder blocks, but not nearly enough to elevate all the tents off the ground so that the rats couldn’t nest under them.
Nickelsville did not make any arrangements for Dumpster service at the Skyway site, and I’m told that this was because they had left the Highland Park location owing the waste disposal company (Waste Management, Inc.) several thousand dollars.
Since Nickelsville-Skyway had an insufficient number of trash cans and no Dumpster service, bags of trash began piling up immediately, as you can see from the photo below. That photo was taken on November 18, but is very typical of the situation that prevailed throughout the camp’s three-month stay:
Neighbors complained to the DPER’s Jim Chan about the trash, but when he showed up for inspection, he took no action. Instead, he simply reclassified the dumping area as a “dumpster.”
See Mr. Chan’s inspection letter here:
I visited the camp for myself around this time, to see for myself what it looked like, and indeed, it was awful. In addition to the piles of trash, the camp smelled of human waste.
Knowing Nickelsville’s history with the Health Department, I eventually decided to call my contact there, Bill Lasby, who had overseen the Health Department’s rat-abatement program at Highland Park. The next day, Mr. Lasby sent one of his inspectors (Leonard Di Toro) to inspect the Skyway camp. Mr. Di Toro found the same conditions I had and wrote them up in the report below:
The letter goes on to recommend that all garbage be kept covered and that it be removed at least once a week. In addition, the camp was told that all “graywater” (bathwater, dishwater, etc.) be disposed of properly. Apparently, people were just dumping that in the bushes outside their tents.
The Nickelsville residents with whom Mr. Di Toro met told him that the camp couldn’t afford a Dumpster and could not afford to haul the trash away on their own more. I’ll examine those claims in a moment, but for now I’ll note that Mr. Di Toro gave Nickelsville three unlimited vouchers for free dump runs. Each voucher would pay for one truckload full of garbage to be dumped at Metro’s South Transfer Station (just down the hill) regardless of weight or volume of the load Within a few days of Mr. Di Toro’s visit, a real Dumpster had arrived on the site, courtesy of a different agency within King County.
That free Dumpster was virtually useless to the campers. In the first place, it was too small. In the second place, it was good for just one free pick-up. The Dumpster filled up within hours of being opened and sat there uselessly until the camp finally moved out.
In fact, neither the Dumpster service nor the free dump-run coupons were used until Nickelsville’s final move-out from Skyway, in early December, 2013.
How could this have happened? How could the government of King County (a government which includes the Seattle-King County Health Department) have spent tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to abate rats and improve hygienic conditions at Nickelsville-Highland Park, only to stand by silently as the camp pulled up stakes and settled into another filthy hole just a few miles down the road?
On December 16, 2013 – two weeks after the camp had moved out of Skyway – Mr. Di Toro got in touch with me with his report of what had happened. He told me that he’d been the one who’d responded to the complaint and had done the inspection . . . and he was happy to inform me that the trash problem at Skyway was “resolved.” (!)
“No. It wasn’t resolved,” I said. “Nickelsville just up and left.”
“That’s right,” he said. “So it’s not a problem any more.”[I’m paraphrasing here. I don’t remember what the exact words were.]
“But your department didn’t do anything to address the problem while it was ongoing,” I said. “People lived in filth the whole time they were there.”
“Well, you called us in November, and they were out of there in December. We gave them some vouchers for dump runs. That’s about all we could do.”
“But they didn’t even use the trash vouchers,” I said. “Not until they left.”
[No response to that.]
When I asked Mr. Di Toro why the Health Department didn’t ticket Nickelsville or require that they use the dump vouchers immediately, Mr. Di Toro explained to me that the Department’s emphasis is on education and compliance, not punishment.
“Great,” I said, “but the education part was already done. Many of the Skyway squatters had come straight from Highland Park. They’d been through the drill. Certainly Scott Morrow and Peggy Hotes knew what was expected of them. They were there for the Highland Park abatement program, and they’re the ones who set up the subsequent Skyway camp. So they KNEW.”
Mr. Di Toro claimed that he was not aware of any of that. When I asked him, point blank, he said he didn’t know anything about the history of his department and Nickelsville. He hadn’t read anything about it in the papers, hadn’t Googled it, hadn’t checked the files. In short, he hadn’t researched it in any way.
“It was Bill Lasby who sent you out there, right?” I asked. “He knew all about Nickelsville-Highland Park. Didn’t he tell you anything about that before he sent you out there?”
“No,” he said.
–Honest to God. That’s what Mr. Di Toro told me. His said that his boss, Bill Lasby – the same Bill Lasby who had overseen the Nickelsville abatement project – hadn’t mentioned anything about that before sending him to Nickelsville-Skyway. And no one else had either.
That was, in fact, a lie. Ms. Leah Helms, who had plenty of experience with Nickelsville-Highland Park, had briefed Mr. De Toro about it before he went on his site visit. This fact is shown quite clearly in the Health Department work logs above.
Here’s an item from the work log for 2013 showing Ms. Helms discussing the Highland Park rat problem with two other specialists. It’s dated January 9, 2013:
Now here’s another item from a “Review of Work” document I obtained. It shows Ms. Helms briefing Mr. Di Toro (“Leonard”) about Nickelsville’s history with the Health Department shortly before he went on his visit to the Skyway camp. [Click the image to enlarge it.]
See the complete “Review of Activities” document here.
So Mr. Di Toro lied to me. But in this case it might as well have been true that Mr. Di Toro had no prior knowledge of Nickelsville, because whatever knowledge he did have, he certainly did not apply. He did absolutely nothing in terms of enforcement, and he did very nearly nothing in terms of compliance. (Dump run vouchers, that was it.) He claims to have done some education, but that was certainly not needed, and in any case, it produced no effect.
Nor did Mr. Di Toro try to contact any other officials in King County government and ask them to intervene. What he could have (and should have) done, is to call Jim Chan at DPER and say: “Jim, this is an unsanitary situation at Skyway. We’ve spent months working with Nickelsville and they’re not complying. You need to take some action.”
Otherwise, what was all that money and effort at Highland Park for?
-All those high-powered people with the letters after their names
-All those hours of investigations and write-ups
-The “multiagency meetings”
-The hygiene lessons
-The free trash cans . . .
Was it all for nothing? Really?
* * * * *
There are just two plausible explanations for how this could have happened. One is that the Health Department is incompetent. The other one is that the Health Department was looking the other way on Nickelsville-Skyway.
When I think of Mr. Di Toro’s performance, I’m tempted to go with the incompetence theory. “People at Nickelsville impressed me as nice, cooperative folks,” he told me. “I think they just didn’t realize that the trash would attract rats.” Apparently Mr. Di Toro doesn’t give homeless people much credit for intelligence.
Ultimately, though, I find the incompetence theory unsatisfying. I’m not ruling out incompetence as a factor, mind, but to me it seems more likely that the Health Department didn’t pursue action on Nickelsville-Skyway because it didn’t want to.
Or perhaps it had been warned not to.
Certainly, that would fit the pattern of government “looking the other way” when it comes to violations committed by Mr. Morrow and his associates. I’ve been documenting a pattern of illegal and unethical activity by Morrow and his front group, SHARE, for the past ten months, and in that time I’ve confronted dozens of public officials with the evidence. They always seem to have some excuse why they can’t do anything:
“It’s too late to do anything now.”1
“We can’t find the witnesses.”2
“The witnesses won’t testify.”2,3
“They won’t press charges.”2
“It’s not our jurisdiction.”3,4
“There’s already a police investigation going.”5,6
“I’ve been moved off the case.”2
“He’s helping the homeless.”6,7
“I can’t do anything. Why don’t you take it to The Stranger?”8
“Nobody gives the City a better deal on shelter spaces than Scott.”7
“It was an emergency.”9
“No one in the office told me anything about it.”10
Or just plain . . . [Silence]1,11,12
Have I left anything off the list? Seattle-ites are creative people, so I’m sure the list of excuses will keep growing as time goes on. Meanwhile, I’ll keep collecting the evidence and building my readership. And embarrassing as many public officials as I have to along the way.
Nickelsville Could Have Picked Up Its trash
Of all the excuses I’ve ever heard made on Nickelsville’s behalf, this claim of “they have no money” is the most bogus one of all. Not surprisingly, it is the one most preferred by Scott Morrow himself, who claims to be “just an unpaid consultant” who is running an organization that is constantly short of funds . . . so won’t you please help?
Friendly news organizations, like KPLU and the Seattle Times are happy to do their part, by running stories that focus on children at Nickelsville. The stories often finish with a direct plea for money, or a feel-good line about how some philanthropist has just dropped a bundle on the camp. We see the pattern repeated many times. Meanwhile, in their fund-raising pitches, Nickelsville always claims to be running out of money to cover basic costs, such as port-a-pots. Next thing you know, they’re announcing a grant from some organization with “social justice” in the name, or getting a boost from some city official who’s attending one of their “gala auctions.”
The Nickelsville’s-broke-as-a-joke narrative seems to have permeated the consciousness of every government official this side of the Pecos, but the King County Department of Permitting is an especially well-indoctrinated bunch. As it turns out, the 2013 squat was actually the second time around for Nickelsville at Skyway. Three years earlier, in 2010, Nickelsville had showed up at the same property (also illegally and also without advance notice). At that time their fee was conveniently waived, presumably because they were broke. The second time around, when I complained to DPER’s Jim Chan about how Nickelsville was being granted a permit illegally – without an advance application and without notifying the neighbors – he assured me that Nickelsville would pay a price for that, in the form of a penalty fee added onto their base permit cost. But when I followed up with him, I discovered that no such fee was ever levied.
Later, I discovered that Nickelsville had not remitted even the base fee they had been invoiced for (around $400). Presumably they won’t be paying that either, because as everyone knows, they’re broke. As of now, the 2013 Skyway permit fee remains unpaid by Nickelsville.
I find this broke-as-a-joke narrative curious, especially in light of the fact that in mid-November, at about the same time Nickelsville-Skyway residents were claiming that they could not afford to haul their trash away, Nickelsville was crowing on Facebook about the money they’d just made at an auction held downtown . . .
Source: Nickelsville Works Facebook page
Nor should we forget money in the bank. Here’s a statement of Nickelsville’s 2012 finances, as reported to the Washington State Secretary of State’s Charities Program. After years of flying under the radar, Nickelsville was compelled to submit these documents in response to a complaint filed with the SOS by me.
On Page 2 of the application, you’ll see that Nickelsville received more than $50,000 in revenues in 2012. Receipts in 2013 are likely to have been at least as high. In addition to their regular grants from the “NW Social Justice Fund,” there’s the LIHI charity auction money, and pass-thru donations from various other non-profit groups around town, groups like Operation Sack Lunch. Beyond all that money, Nickelsville has access to tens of thousands of dollars of in-kind donations, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in money its parent group, SHARE, receives in annual grants from Seattle’s Human Services Department.
Note: “Unpaid consultant” Morrow controls the finances and operations of both SHARE and Nickelsville, and while I’m not accusing Morrow of misappropriating SHARE’S money, let’s just say the when it comes to business operations, SHARE’s assets are fungible. SHARE’s accounting practices have been the subject of a prolonged police investigation, according to HSD’s public records officer, David Takami.
The point here is not to dissect Mr. Morrow’s accounting practices; the point is to show that Nickelsville has money. At least enough money to pay for Dumpster service, or failing that, weekly dump runs. And at least enough money to pay a $400 permit fee at Skyway.
At this point, it shouldn’t even matter whether Nickelsville and Mr. Morrow are lying about their finances. It’s clear as a bell that they are not capable of sheltering homeless people, or keeping them out of filth. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Scott Morrow really is an unpaid consultant and Nickelsville really is broke-as-a-joke. So what’s he doing opening new franchises and walking away and letting people there rot? Any so-called homeless organization that can’t observe the most basic, most common-sense hygiene standards – even after being lavished with money, time, and LOVE by local government – has no business running a homeless camp.
It’s time for King County to start moving Scott Morrow and Nickelsville OUT of the homeless business. For good.
Photo by Kevin R. McClintic
Does what you’ve read here make you mad? If so, you should contact one or more of the officials below and ask them for their response. See if what they say has the “ring of truth.” –that is, if you can get them to respond at all . . .
Trust me: I have contacted each one of these people with this same information – sometimes more than once – and to date I have not received a commitment from any of them to hold Nickelsville or Scott Morrow accountable.
The easiest thing you can do is just drop them a line to tell them that you’ve read this post. It WILL make a difference.
Health & Environmental Investigator IV
Seattle King County Public Health
Project manager for Nickelsville-Highland Park rat abatement project. According to investigator Leonard Di Toro, neither Lasby nor anyone else briefed him about Nickelsville’s previous interactions with Health before sending him on the inspection at NV-Skyway.
Phone: (206) 263-8495
Assistant Director for Permitting
King County DPER
He let Nickelsville move into Skyway without a permit because Scott Morrow told him it was “an emergency.” He also granted Nickelsville permission to dump trash in Skyway and refused to impose any financial penalties or even require Nickelsville to pay the base permit fee.
Phone: (206) 477-0835
King County DPER
Jim Chan’s boss. I’ve Cc’d him on many e-mails. He steadfastly refused to require Nickelsville to comply with King County permitting requirements, including: application process, public notification, sanitation, and permitting fees.
Phone: (206) 477-0382
King County Council Member for District 2 (Skyway)
I’ve Cc’d Gossett on mnay e-mails and linked him to many posts. Larry is pals with Scott Morrow’s front-group LIHI, and a publicly financed LIHI building inamed for him. As a Black “civil rights hero” representing a largely Black area, Gossett has a lock on Skyway, running unopposed in election after election.
Phone: (206) 296-1002
King County Council Member for District 1
Salary: ??? (Too much, whatever it is.)
Specialist in County housing issues. Dembowski has been made aware of the situation at Skyway. He didn’t respond to my request for a meeting to address problems with DPER’s kid-gloves treatment of Nickelsville.
Phone: (206) 477-1001
King County Executive
Oversees County agencies that fund and regulate Morrow operations (SHARE, Tent Cities, Nickelsville). I’ve Cc’d him on e-mails, so he knows the score. I’ve never gotten a direct response from him or his office.
Phone: (206) 296-4040
Leonard “Lenny Bull” Di Toro
Health & Environment Investigator II
Seattle King County Public Health
Phone: Why bother?
E-mail: Why bother?
2. Seattle Police Department (various)
3. Seattle Office for Civil Rights (complaint filings)
4. King County Dept. of Human Services (various)
5. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes (quoted by Seattle Times columnist Emily Heffter)
6. Seattle Human Services Department (David Takami, Catherine Lester)
7. Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata (via his aide, Lisa Herbold)
8. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (speaking to a neighborhood group)
9. King County Dept. of Planning and Environmental Review (James Chan)
10. King County Health Department (Leonard Di Toro)
11. King County Councilmembers Rod Dembowski, Larry Gossett
12. King County Executive, Dow Constantine
13. Attorney General Bob Ferguson