I wade out over the barnacled rocks, feet protected by the thick soles of my Tevas, push through leaves and seaweed floating on a high tide, adjust my goggles, and swim out into the cold salt water of Puget Sound. I do this often in the summer. And when I do, I sometimes reflect on Gov. Chris Gregoire standing by the shore in 2007, signing legislation that created the Puget Sound Partnership, and setting the goal of a Sound that was “fishable, swimmable and diggable” by 2020.
That goal was never more than a sound — or, if you prefer, a Sound — bite. Some people swim in the Sound every summer. On my way to the beach, I passed three people fishing from a pier. Whenever the salmon are running, state ferries must blow their horns and steer around the small craft of fishermen more intent on their quarry than their personal safety.
That said, yes the Sound could use some saving. And now it seems that the Puget Sound Partnership could use a little salvation of its own.
The Partnership has been stung by a series of revelations about minor — inexcusable, but still minor — financial sins, and suggestions of both cronyism and misuse of power. This spring, the Washington State Auditor's Office found that “[t]he Puget Sound Partnership circumvented state contracting laws, exceeded its purchasing authority and made unallowable purchases with public funds.” The agency had, among other things, circumvented competitive bidding requirements — as well as a requirement to use the Attorney General's office — to hire an outside law firm, and had bought Apple computer products at retail even though they cost two-thirds more than low-end PCs and weren't compatible with state information systems.
One might consider this old news, but in a recent series of reports by John Ryan, KUOW has repeated some of the Auditor's findings. In addition, Ryan has reported that Partnership executive director David Dicks may have misused a government car and that the Partnership fired a whistleblower. Ryan's series also has questioned the role of Dicks' father, Congressman Norm Dicks.
Alluding to the KUOW reports, the Tacoma News Tribune has suggested that “Puget Sound is in serious need . . . of a cleanup agency that the public trusts. . . . On that score” the paper says, “the Puget Sound Partnership is failing. Its management practices invite skepticism and undermine its own mission to secure money for the Sound’s rescue.”
The Godfather of the Puget Sound restoration effort, former EPA head Bill Ruckelshaus, may have stepped down as chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council just in time.
Or maybe not quite in time. Ruckelshaus, who had been chair from the start and had co-chaired an earlier ad hoc group, also called the Partnership, that came up with the plan for this one, was replaced at the end of July by longtime vice-chair Martha Kongsgaard. He isn't leaving the group — which is a good thing, because no one else associated with the effort carries anything close to his stature.
Clearly, management of the Partnership has been both sloppy and cavalier in its use of tax dollars. If the allegations about the Partnership are true, one hopes some faces have turned red and perhaps some butts will be kicked.
That said, it's a sideshow. While reporting that the outside law firm had received $51,498, and implying — if you do the math — that the agency spent about $31,000 more than it should have by buying MacIntosh computer products, rather than Dell or Hewlett-Packard PCs, the Auditor's Office noted that “[f]or 2007-2009, the Partnership had an operating budget of $16,147,000.”
And that is merely the tip of the iceberg. The state spends an estimated $250 million a year for Puget Sound protection and restoration, and Congressman Norm Dicks has gotten Congress to appropriate $50 million a year for Puget Sound. “The region probably spends more than $1 billion each year to meet stormwater requirements," writes John Lombard in his 2006 book Saving Puget Sound. And no one even pretends that we have stormwater under control.
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