How we got involved in the PenMet/Fox Island issue
By Glenn Hansen & Peggy Power
We have lived next to the Fox Island Fishing Pier Park for 12 years now. Glenn is retired from sales/customer service, and Peggy is a retired veterinarian and small business owner of 37 years. We have lived in the Puget Sound area since childhood, and we raised our families in the Tacoma/University Place area. We moved to what we consider to be our ‘paradise’ on this special island in 2010.
Only 3-5 families are close enough neighbors to the Fishing Pier Park to be aware of park activities on a day-to-day basis, particularly after hours when the park is closed. We can comment from first-hand experience as to how things have been over years, both before and after park hosts were on-site. We have been involved in locking and unlocking the park gates at dawn and dusk many times on behalf of PenMet and have helped in transferring keys to park hosts as they came and went over the last decade. Most of the hosts were excellent, although PenMet had difficulty finding hosts who wanted to stay in the non-summer months.
When Ed and Lynn Lewis started as park hosts roughly 6 years ago, they were clearly committed to taking excellent care of the park. The gates were promptly opened at sunrise and closed at dusk. Ed mowed the large lawn himself because he found the maintenance staff mowing less than satisfactory, cleared large sections of blackberry overgrowth, picked up litter, washed the fishing pier every night, cleaned the restrooms—in essence, they treated the property responsibly and with attentive care. The presence of their RV and knowing they lived there created a sense of security—for times when teens would climb the fence after dark, when people would remove seaweed and other sea-life from the beach, when kids would try to jump from the pier, when dogs were allowed off-leash, occasionally when a distraught/suicidal person would need intervention—it was a safer feeling to have a ‘presence’ living there. (We have heard similar reports about the service that Brett Marlow provided at the DeMolay Sandspit from the neighbors around that park.)
Over the years, we watched with appreciation and respect as Ed & Lynn were faithful stewards of the park, and naturally they became valued neighbors and friends. In July 2021, we were stunned to hear that they were being kicked out as park hosts by PenMet. The only reason we even knew this was from reading the letter sent from PenMet to Ed & Lynn—there was no consultation with local residents or discussion at board meetings—the decision was made abruptly without notice. In fact, no one would have realized this had been done until after the park hosts left.
Of course, as neighbors who would be directly affected by this move, we approached PenMet to ask “WHY?” The obvious questions were:
- How does this decision benefit the park patrons and neighbors?
- What is the increased cost to have paid park employees replace the duties of volunteer hosts? (At minimum, now park employees would need to drive out to open and close the gates at dawn and dusk 365 days a year.)
- Who made this decision and why?
And then the journey began . . . We are normal citizens who pay taxes asking a public agency who we elected to explain their actions. We wrote Emails, made phone calls, and attended every board meeting to voice our questions and concerns. We started a petition with over 500 signers asking PenMet to postpone the decision and meet with the community to discuss reasons and other solutions, and posted signs around the island at our own expense.
What was PenMet’s response? To concerned constituents who were asking about decisions regarding our parks and spending of our tax monies? One would hope and expect that people who we elected to steward our properties and monies would listen, be able to give rational reasons for what they are doing, to be open to other collaborations and solutions, in short to be responsive and accountable. Instead, what did we get?
- Refusal to even meet–our petition request to meet with the community was absolutely ignored and refused.
- Refusal to answer repeated direct questions. Even for ‘simple’ inquiries such as what the additional cost of security cameras would be, we were told to file a ‘Request for Public Information’ (PRR’s).
- Then when we filed Requests for Public Information, we were informed that it would be 90-120 days to provide, and actually now some of our PRR’s have not yet been filled after nine months! Since this is a violation of Washington state law, this may ultimately result in legal action and financial penalties. Sadly, this stubbornness and incompetence ultimately costs us, the taxpayers.
- The few responses we received were vague and ‘political speak’, as illustrated by the FAQ posted on the PenMet site and published by reporters. When a detailed point-by-point rebuttal to the FAQ was written, it was ignored.
- When FICRA offered to collaborate to find mutually agreeable solutions for the park host issue, PenMet refused their offer without discussion.
- Complete lack of dollar figures—we have yet to hear a detailed discussion of the costs before and after the park host decision. When we ask about the increased cost that we are paying for staff to drive in and out to lock and unlock the park gates every morning and evening (to replace what the volunteer park hosts were doing for free), we are told that it is ‘in the budget’—an example of the vague and frustrating answers we received.
- Personal attacks—as we have asked valid questions and challenged PenMet’s non-answers, we have been called ‘threatening’ by board members, have had vulgarities screamed in our faces by board member Kurt Grimmer outside a board meeting, been falsely accused of both our statements and actions to defame our character. Instead of being receptive to legitimate concerns, PenMet’s default reaction has been to ‘attack the messenger rather than listen to the message’.
- For a while, we felt like ‘lone criers in the wilderness’. Then in January, PenMet finally met with a larger group from FICRA, and their tactics became more widely observed. The concern regarding PenMet practices has grown into a community effort to remove Fox Island from their district and draw attention to hold them accountable.
As we have learned more, PenMet has many reasons to feel defensive. Below are some of the concerning things we have observed and discovered over the months as we have talked with former employees, past Executive Directors and many other people who are equally disturbed with PenMet’s current management:
- Multiple areas of ‘deferred maintenance’ (i.e. another term for not doing required maintenance in a timely manner to preserve the condition of the district properties), both in Fox Island parks and throughout the park district. We see extreme moss accumulation on many roofs, black mold inside buildings, railings repaired with duct tape, sewer control boxes left open and defaced, deteriorating buildings left as ‘attractive nuisances’ for years, etc. etc. PenMet’s revenues are strong, so this is not a financial issue.
- Specifically, Fox Island citizens pay roughly $1 million per year in their property taxes designated to PenMet. In 2020 & 2021, PenMet has spent roughly $35,000 in maintenance on Fox Island properties, largely for utilities, security patrol for DeMolay during the day, and COVID HandyCans when the restrooms were closed. Most accountants would not even classify utilities as a maintenance cost, but PenMet does.
- The PenMet board has increased the levy to the maximum allowed and reportedly has had discussions to extend the levy lid for additional years. This creates a lien on our properties and commits us to further tax dollars—allowed ‘technically’ by law but certainly not acting in good faith as public officials.
- The current Executive Director (one in a series of >5 people hired and fired by the board in the last 5 years) was hired in April 2021 without open hiring and public process. This current Executive Director is known to be a ‘close personal friend’ of the prior Board President. The construction company that the current Executive Director used to work for has been contracted for current PenMet capital improvement projects.
- Several employees have resigned/been terminated after years of service and close to their potential retirement dates. (We believe that separation agreements have been signed assuring some of these employees’ silence in exchange for financial compensation, another cost ultimately paid by taxpayers. This is another area that we are awaiting additional documentation from our PRR’s.)
- The taxpayer-paid PenMet attorney has been extensively involved in district correspondence, intimidating contact with prior employees, and personnel matters, resulting in his charging the district 262% of the legal budget for 2021. (A PRR request for the attorney’s invoices has been delayed at least nine months since the first request in August 2021.)
- Peninsula Gardens has fallen into serious disrepair since its acquisition in 2012. It was used as a ‘dumpsite’ for large amounts of torn-up asphalt, used turf and other debris, present for many months and seriously overgrown by blackberries. This was reported as a concern to PenMet directly but was ignored, necessitating reporting to Pierce County Code Enforcement. PenMet’s initial (untrue) claim to Pierce County was that these dumped materials were going to be ‘re-purposed’—only when citizens followed up pointing out the falsehood of these statements to Pierce County was the Peninsula Gardens site cleaned up.
- PenMet has been aware for years that the Sehmel soccer field does not meet G-Max certification standards for safety. After exposing children to an unsafe field with increased risk of head and other injury, only this spring has PenMet updated the field conditions to meet standards. PenMet had been informed years ago that it did not come close to meeting industry standards, yet did not see it as important to notify parents of the risk or make it a priority to update.
- Multiple past employees and others have reported serious incidents of health and safety violations in PenMet childrens’ programs, including lack of staff training, use of personal cell phone data to contact underage participants, presence of liquor in program kitchens, and other deeply concerning practices. More information in this area will be coming soon.
So why are we involved?? We don’t need this—we have spent considerable time and energy on this issue, and we would much prefer to spend our time with our grandchildren, gardening, dogs and travel. BUT we have seen too much to walk away from the disregard and incompetence of our publicly elected officials and irresponsible spending of our tax dollars. Being ‘seasoned seniors’, it would be tempting to become cynical about ‘Big Government’, throw up our hands in despair, and resolve to live our life. Unfortunately, this is literally in our front yard and involves our locally elected representatives, and we cannot ignore this issue in good conscience. If we do not call this group to accountability, who will??
PenMet needs serious attention, but the first logical step is to remove Fox Island from its jurisdiction. We believe that Fox Island groups comprised of our own citizens have demonstrated their willingness and ability to steward their properties well. Actually any new entity would be an improvement over PenMet’s abject neglect, non-responsiveness and ‘deferred maintenance’. For a million dollars per year of taxes, it is reasonable to expect much more for our contributions. Ultimately, it also could give Fox Island residents the option to structure those tax dollars for bigger issues such as the new bridge and fire/emergency services.
Please join and support us in our efforts!