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A once-in-a-generation chance for regionalism

The idea gets lip service each election, but this year could be different, especially for King County. A veteran advocate lays out some guidelines and examples.
The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure

The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure WSDOT

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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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 2, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

I found it a bit odd that a column on regionalism doesn't mention a single county or city outside of King County, other than Olympia, which was named only to brag about how the Eastside has worked together to get better representation (read: stuff for themselves) in state government.

Regionalism is more than Eastside cities linking arms to better compete against other Washington cities, sir. Regionalism is cities of the Puget Sound region joining together to compete against other regions, states, and even countries. It's working together to keep South Carolina from winning Boeing jobs from Washington, not Seattle winning Russell Investments from Tacoma, or the Seattle and Tacoma ports from winning shipping lines from each other.

Posted Tue, Nov 3, 3:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Since Fred supports Dow, any reference to joining together or building trust or partnerships is a bald faced lie.

Sorry Fred, you have lost any shred of integrity you ever had when you threw your lot in with Team Dow.

Cameron

Posted Tue, Nov 3, 4:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Cameron, I enjoy hearing from you when you focus more on the merits of what is written.

My two cents-- it probably surprises those focused on ganging-up to learn how unusual Washington's growth management act was--the original focus was on managing growth by "sharing" it. I once tabulated all of the citations that made that clear (at least, to those so interested). I have not had the heart to go back and see how many have been purged. My hope is that they seemed so mom and apple pie as to be harmless and have been left alone.

In that every one of us is in competition to live, to be valued, to be heard, it goes without saying that the trick to any partnership is how widely the benefits sought can be made mutual. It is hard, but not impossible to imagine a partnership that includes South Carolina and places beyond. It all seems to start early and at home, the best of us can overcome bad things that happen there, even teach others how, many more merely manage to pass the bad things on.

afreeman

Posted Wed, Nov 4, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

There was no merit in what Fred wrote...enjoy.

Cameron

Posted Mon, Dec 7, 7:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Jarrett has since been hired by Constantine to help manage the government.

The terms region and regionalism are used frequently but have fuzzy definitions; they mean everything and nothing. King County is sometimes referred to as a regional government, as its countywide services of criminal justice and transit service serve many cities and unincorporated areas. King County also resides in the central Puget Sound region and that is defined differently by context: the feds have statistical metropolitan areas and the four-county PSRC to allocate grant funds; Sound Transit serves the urbanized areas of three counties. if one is not careful in defining the terms region and regional, the meaning of one's point can be lost. The three ST counties of Pierce, King, and Snohomish are huge individually and regional is scope. for example, the area of King County alone is twice that of the three counties of TriMet serving Portland.

The 40-40-20 financial rule in transit must also be stated carefully. it only bears on the allocation of new service. the north King County subarea (e.g., Seattle, Shoreline, and Lake Forest Park) enjoys 62 percent of the current service. the financial policy is simply a political compromise to allow the suburban subareas to slowly catch up. one problem is that there is too little new service subsidy. even that is now over shadowed by a second problem, the fiscal crisis that threatens to shrink the Metro service unless new service subsidy is provided. that will require suburban votes in Olympia or in the King County courthouse or both. there are good transit investments available in all three subareas.

eddiew

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