Regionalism is a term that gets thrown around a lot during election seasons. Candidates talk about the need to work more closely with other governments, to forge service-delivery partnerships and to build stronger collaborative relationships. Then, after the election, everyone goes back to working in the same governmental silos. Sometimes incremental changes are made, usually driven by external forces, but the status quo is not seriously challenged. After all, you don’t get elected with votes from those other districts.
This year could be different in King County.
Both county executive candidates Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison have made improving the county’s relationship with other governments a part of their campaigns. Both have called for a senior management position charged with the responsibility of building stronger partnerships with other governments. This is a good first step, but real change will depend on a much richer strategy for collaboration than just another box on the organizational chart.
Just as the financial crisis facing the Metro bus system offers a rare opportunity to redefine public transportation, the fiscal meltdown engulfing county government offers a chance to re-invent how this region works.
First, a little primer. King County is a complex place located in a complex region. As former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and Eastside business leader John Stanton observed in their study of our regional transportation system, there are more than 100 public agencies with some piece of of our regional transportation system. King County has 39 cities, plus multiple special purpose districts. We have state and federal governments with many more loosely coupled agencies.
Each of these institutions has its own set of objectives set by hundreds of elected officials and legions of staffers. This reality is not going to change soon, so the challenge of forging working partnerships must be accomplished in this rich soup of relationships. How can this be done? I’ve worked out a few guidelines, from my years of trying to make music together:
First, realize that we won’t always agree and often our interests will diverge. In such cases good fences make for good neighbors. Care should be put into defining those boundaries.
Expanding the scope of a problem by making it easier to solve it. An example is the 20-40-40 allocation of Metro bus service, which looks like a conflict but actually provides an opportunity for a more creative way of allocating service to meet the needs of taxpayers and riders, as well as resoliving some wider regional goals.
Expanding the scope of an issue may seem to be a recipe for making the difficult impossible, but it’s also a way to find shared interests. In the case of 20-40-40 allocation (20 percent for Seattle and 40 percent each for the Eastside and South King County), the suburban interest isn’t in assuring that service be allocated according to tax contributions (a political calculation) but with providing their constituents with local and regional mobility.
Developing multi-modal transportation strategies that support regional growth management plans would provide us a more rational way to allocate transportation resources and give us a performance-based way to measure results. For example, sending a greater level of Metro service to communities such as Eastgate or SeaTac, two places willing to absorb more density, would both move more people and help guide regional development. This is a much more rational approach than the current, parochial method of service allocation by political formula.
Monitor equity issues by a performance-based focus. Effective partnerships require a clear articulation of the roles, accountability, and authority of each partner. This approach brings a discipline to partnership discussions, underscored when obligations and outcomes are measured by results rather than effort and vague promises.
Let’s look at the current jail situation as an example. The county recently instituted a policy whereby the Maleng Regional Justice Center does not take prisoner bookings after business hours, thereby causing local police agencies to transport prisoners to the downtown Seattle jail. This pound-foolish policy for saving from one budget for King County has a perverse result: It takes many suburban police officers off patrol for longer trips to the Seattle pokey. A regional, performance-based focus would see that savings accruing to King County comes at the expense of many suburban jurisdictions.
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