As candidates for Burien City Council canvassed and campaigned in late July ahead of the Aug. 3 primary election, false claims about enhanced services facilities, or ESFs, began to circulate online.
In fact-checking those claims, The B-Town Blog reached out to the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and the city of Burien, as well as the anonymous group, the law firm and the Burien City Council candidate who have made those claims during this year’s local election cycle.
Bea Rector, the director of the DSHS’s Home and Community Services division, which oversees state-licensed ESF providers, said she is not surprised to see that some in Burien have latched on to and spread false claims about enhanced services facilities.
“I do feel like when you are a community and there’s all these different pieces of information coming at you from different entities and you’re worried, people do jump to the wrong conclusions and it’s easy to get confused,” Rector told The B-Town Blog in a recent phone interview.
During this year’s local election season, false claims about ESFs first appeared in a July 22 Facebook post by an anonymous “non-political group of concerned citizens,” followed by an anonymous email sent to an unknown number of people – including The B-Town Blog – a day later by the same group.
Both the post and the email contained an identical message to voters discussing the city council’s June 2021 approval of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) planned permanent supportive housing project, the council’s June 2020 approval of zoning regulations for ESFs, and a suggestion that Burienites vote for a slate of four candidates: Martin Barrett, Mark Dorsey, Alex Simkus and Stephanie Mora.
“The Department of Corrections and other agencies are now exploring placing multiple facilities in Burien,” the anonymous group, calling itself Burien United, claimed in its discussion of ESFs. “There are no restrictions in our community, while cities like Des Moines and Shoreline have limited where ESF’s can be placed.”
According to the DSHS and the DOC, enhanced services facilities have nothing to do with the DOC’s largely unsuccessful and recently discontinued effort to identify potential sites for future work-release facilities not only in King County but also in Pierce, Snohomish, Chelan, Douglas and Kittitas counties.
“There’s no connection,” Rector said. “Enhanced services facilities are not work-release settings. The ESF is not an essential public facility [EPF], it’s not a psychiatric facility, it is a long-term care facility. And the regulations for ESFs are very different from the regulations for what DOC might be trying to site.”
The DOC’s effort to identify potential work-release facility sites in King County is on hiatus as of Sept. 9 after the department’s only viable King County site, located in the city of SeaTac, fell apart after that city’s council approved a one-year moratorium on work-release facilities and the property owner withdrew their interest in developing the site as a work-release facility, according to Rachel Ericson, deputy communications director for the DOC.
“There has never been any discussion or consideration given to possibly siting a work-release facility using the local enhanced services facilities [ESFs] designation in Burien,” Ericson told The B-Town Blog. “DOC work releases are designated as essential public facilities [EPFs], and the department has conducted all expansion efforts based upon that designation.”
Burien United did not respond to The B-Town Blog’s multiple requests for comment.
Candidate conflates ESFs with EPFs
The false claims about ESFs did not stop with Burien United’s Facebook post and mass email. On July 26, the anonymous group published a video featuring Burien City Council Position No. 1 candidate Martin Barrett in which Barrett discussed his opposition to enhanced services facilities.
“… the Department of Corrections, the DOC, sent a letter to the city of Burien saying that they want to use these ESFs as a place for their work-release programs for their felons,” Barrett said. “In other words, once again, in a neighborhood near you, or actually in a neighborhood next to you, they can house now people who are coming out of the prison system, and they will be unsupervised.”
The B-Town Blog reached out to Barrett multiple times over several weeks seeking to discuss his claims about ESFs, but Barrett did not respond.
The candidate is correct about the DOC sending a letter to the city, however, that May 10 letter, which was also sent to other south King County cities, said nothing of ESFs, instead stating that the DOC was “seeking assistance from your department to identify allowable zones and likely land-use requirements for siting a WR facility within your City. This information would allow us to focus our search for suitable sites.”
More than three months later, on Aug. 17, the city provided the DOC with its zoning code and comprehensive plan information relevant to the siting of essential public facilities, or EPFs. Those provisions, which have been on the city’s books since 2012, are required by state law and can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Nearly a month earlier, the city of Burien joined the cities of Des Moines and Normandy Park in signing on to a July 20 city of SeaTac letter addressed to DOC Deputy Secretary Julie Martin regarding the DOC’s potential SeaTac site for a future work-release facility in which the cities took issue with the DOC’s approach and process for identifying potential sites.
Specifically, the cities in their joint letter argued that public engagement was lacking, that the site selection process was flawed in that it focused primarily on south King County instead of north or east King County, and that by focusing on south King County, the DOC’s approach would contribute to existing geographic and social inequities in the region.
“Our communities already support a significant number of essential public facilities (EPFs) and represent BIPOC and low-income populations,” the joint letter stated. “The further concentration of EPFs in these communities will exacerbate existing inequities.”
What are ESFs?
The state Legislature established enhanced services facilities in 2005 “to address a gap in the long-term care system,” said Rector, the director of the DSHS’s Home and Community Services division.
“That gap was individuals who have a need for assistance with activities of daily living – toileting, dressing, bathing, medication reminders, meal preparation – [individuals who] have some more complicated medical needs and also have a need for behavior support,” Rector said. “They no longer have a medical need or a psychiatric need to be getting inpatient services and can receive their psychiatric services in the community like the vast majority of individuals with mental health needs do.”
However, it wasn’t until 2013 that lawmakers allocated funding for licensing and implementation, and the first enhanced services facilities did not open until 2016, with one in Spokane and another in Vancouver.
In 2017, a third facility opened in Spokane, then a fourth opened in Everett in 2018. In 2020, another facility opened in Spokane, and this year, a sixth facility opened in Olympia. All together, Rector said, those facilities offer 83 beds, 68 of which are currently occupied.
“These are small, residential settings,” Rector said, noting that each facility is limited to no more than 16 residents and that they are required to maintain a relatively high staffing ratio: one staff for every four residents and a minimum of two staff on duty at all times, contradicting Barrett’s claim that ESF residents would be unsupervised.
In December 2018, Noble Healthcare informed the city of its plans to open an ESF in the Seahurst neighborhood next to a post office and not far from St. Francis of Assisi School. Noble Healthcare scrapped that effort a week after hosting what became a contentious open-house meeting that attracted roughly 300 people, many of whom opposed the proposal.
In early March of that year, the city council established a moratorium to evaluate zoning options for ESFs as none had previously been established in the city. Following a public process that included a December 2019 public hearing, the city’s planning commission unanimously voted on Jan. 8, 2020, to recommend allowing ESFs in most zones, including all residential zones.
Although Burien City Council Position No. 1 candidate Hugo Garcia was chair of the planning commission at the time, Garcia was absent during the Jan. 8, 2020, meeting and, as a result, did not cast a vote on whether to recommend the ESF zoning regulations to the city council.
In June 2020, the city council voted 4-3 in favor of the planning commission’s recommendation, with councilors Nancy Tosta, Kevin Schilling and Sofia Aragon opposed.
Since its creation of ESF zoning regulations, the city has not received any applications seeking to open an ESF anywhere in the city, according to city spokesperson Emily Inlow-Hood.
A law firm’s allegations
In an Aug. 13 letter to Burien’s city council and city manager, an attorney with Seattle-based law firm Dickson Frohlich alleged without evidence that the council’s approval of zoning regulations for ESFs – otherwise known as Ordinance 734 – “did not follow proper legal procedure” and that “the language in the motion did not clearly outline what was being proposed.”
The next day, on Aug. 14, The B-Town Blog received a letter-to-the-editor submission from a Burien resident citing the Dickson Frohlich letter and repeating its claims.
In the law firm’s letter – titled “Re: DESC Project” – attorney Mike McCarthy never mentioned the planned DESC permanent supportive housing project but did suggest that the city’s ESF zoning regulations would likely allow the DOC to site a work-release facility in any residential neighborhood.
“My clients are particularly concerned about the fact that the Washington State Department of Corrections has notified the City of Burien of its intent to locate a future site for its work release program within the City,” McCarthy wrote. “That facility will likely be allowed by ordinance 734.”
In fact, the DOC has never sought to use Ordinance 734 as a way to site a work-release facility in a residential area of Burien, said Ericson, the DOC spokesperson, because work-release facilities are considered essential public facilities, not ESFs.
When The B-Town Blog reached out to McCarthy on Sept. 9 seeking more information about the claims he had made in his letter on behalf of “a group of concerned citizens and stakeholders” and whether Dickson Frohlich intended to pursue legal action against the city, McCarthy said he would need to talk to his boss before providing answers.
“I don’t want to cause a big hubbub and then have my boss be like, ‘What the hell?’” McCarthy said, agreeing to consider questions sent by email.
In response to The B-Town Blog’s questions sent by email the same day, McCarthy wrote, “I have to decline to answer.”
Burien United doubles down
In an Aug. 17 post to its Facebook page titled “Department of Corrections: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you,” the anonymous Burien United group repeated its false claims about ESFs and cited the Dickson Frohlich letter sent to city officials days earlier as supporting evidence.
“This issue is now time sensitive as a potential site for the Department of Corrections in Burien will have no limitations as to where it could be placed,” the post reads. “Due to ordinance 734, it could go next to any home, any daycare, and any school.”
On Sept. 10, another Facebook page, which boasts nearly 3,000 followers and describes itself as “a news and analysis page dedicated to bringing honest and relevant journalism back to the people of Burien,” uncritically reposted Burien United’s Aug. 17 post, garnering significantly greater engagement than the relatively unknown Burien United.
Unrelated to Burien United’s false claims about ESFs, the state Public Disclosure Commission is currently assessing allegations that the anonymous group might have violated state campaign finance and disclosure laws. That investigation was spurred by a July 22 complaint filed by Michael Fertakis, who has worked on Burien City Council Position No. 1 candidate Hugo Garcia’s campaign in his capacity as a principal campaign strategist with political consulting firm Upper Left Strategies, which was hired by Garcia ahead of the Aug. 3 primary.
In a Sept. 17 response to Fertakis’ complaint, Burien United stated that it had not raised or spent money, adding that “we are a small group of Burien residents who created a Facebook page.” It also stated that its page had been private “until very recently,” though its first public post appeared July 17 and remains publicly accessible, as do nearly all of its posts since that date.
In its response, Burien United also stated that “we decided to remove the posts about candidates,” which apparently is a reference to several videos – featuring candidates Barrett, Mora and Simkus – that were removed from the Burien United Facebook page but remained on its Vimeo page until sometime in late September when the Burien United Vimeo account disappeared altogether without explanation.
‘Very violent offenders’
In her video for Burien United, released ahead of the Aug. 3 primary, Burien City Council Position No. 7 candidate Stephanie Mora discussed her opposition to ESFs, saying that the issue is “one of the main reasons why I chose to run.
“These are very violent offenders,” Mora said in her video.
Mora did not respond to a request to discuss her position on ESFs or the comments she made in her video for Burien United.
Mora’s characterization of people who live in enhanced services facilities as violent criminals is incorrect, said Rector, the director of the DSHS’s Home and Community Services division.
“There is this common misperception out there that individuals transitioning from state hospitals to the community are dangerous,” Rector said. “We have done a lot of looking into that, and less than one percent of all adult-protective-services and residential-care complaints involve clients transitioning from state hospitals, and most of the time when adult protective services is involved, the person who’s transitioning from the state hospital is the victim, not the perpetrator, of abuse and neglect.”
Most people with a diagnosed mental health condition live in their own homes or with family and receive outpatient services from therapists and psychiatrists, Rector said. One in seven people who receive Medicaid-funded long-term services and supports – such as those provided by enhanced services facilities – have a mental health condition, she said.
“It’s a small portion of people who experience hospital-level care for their mental health condition, but most people who do experience hospital-level inpatient treatment do return to their home communities,” Rector said. “And they’re likely to do much better – if they need this level of care – in a place like an enhanced services facility than they might in their own home or on the street, which, you know, a lot of people with mental health conditions live on the street.”
Rector said she is familiar with the issue of ESFs in Burien because she served as an expert resource to city staff, the planning commission and the city council not only when Noble Healthcare proposed opening a local ESF in late 2018 but throughout the city’s more-than-a-year-long public process to develop ESF zoning regulations thereafter.
ESFs, which serve people with developmental, physical and mental-health disabilities who no longer need the kind of inpatient care provided by state and community psychiatric hospitals, have been “extremely successful” in creating stability for those who move into them, Rector said, eventually allowing some residents to move out and into lower-level care, such as back into their own homes or into adult family homes or assisted-living facilities.
“The people who are living there [in ESFs] have really been able to integrate into their communities, participate in their communities and add value to the community experience,” Rector said.
Since the 1980s, the United States has shifted away from a one-size-fits-all institutional approach to treating people with mental health conditions, Rector said.
“Over time, our culture has changed away from the institutional approach to create a community-based system where people can remain in their communities – where their family is, where their connections are, where their church is, where their schools are,” she said.
“There’s lots of evidence that people do better in smaller settings, they do better in the community and, from a cost-effectiveness standpoint, you can serve many, many, many more people with the right services and supports in the community than you can by putting everybody in a 24/7 institution.”
Nicholas Johnson (he/him) is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who grew up in Boulevard Park, graduated from Highline High School and studied journalism at Western Washington University. Send news tips, story ideas and positive vibes to firstname.lastname@example.org.