"What a perfect time to take stock" of what Puget Sound needs and how we can provide it, says Kathy Fletcher, founder and executive director of People for Puget Sound who, will retire next year from the advocacy group. Fletcher, who has headed that group since 1990 and has been been the most recognizable advocate of reviving Puget Sound since the mid-1980s, looks at the economic slowdown, the almost dead halt to development, the changing of the guard at the state-established Puget Sound Partnership, and sees opporunity — if we have the will to sieze it.
We certainly seem to have reached a crossroads. Fletcher herself, who chaired the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority in the 1980s and has been the only executive director of the group she founded, is leaving after 20 years. And Fletcher isn't the only person making a change. David Dicks, the first and only executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, has left the organizatioin for a job at the University of Washington. Gov. Chris Gregoire, who launched the current save-the-Sound crusade and is entering what may be her last two years in office, has just announced a major reorganization of natural resource agencies that will leave the Partnership intact as the only agency responsible for Puget Sound.
Created in 2007 to replace the old interim group of the same name, which replaced the Puget Sound Action Team (which replaced the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority), the Partnership was stung last spring by a series of revelations about minor financial sins, and suggestions of both cronyism and misuse of power. The Washington State Auditor's Office found that the "Puget Sound Partnership circumvented state contracting laws, exceeded its purchasing authority and made unallowable purchases with public funds.” The agency had, circumvented competitive bidding requirements — and 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. In August, a series of KUOW radio reports by John Ryan repeated the Auditor's findings, also reporting that Dicks had misused a government car and that the Partnership had fired a whistleblower.
Most of the alleged sins seemed distinctly minor, but credibility had become an issue. Referring to the KUOW reports, the Tacoma News Tribune suggested that “Puget Sound is in serious need ... of a cleanup agency that the public trusts." "On that score," the paper said, "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 skepticism evidently extended to Gregoire. At an October hearing on accountability for state resource agencies, Dicks started giving some background about the Partnership when the governor broke in. “These slides are too general for me,” she said. “I knew the story. I want data. I want to be able to see that we are accomplishing what we set out to do. ... I need to be able to show to the legislature, candidly, that we are doing our job.”
The governor sounded like a woman whose patience was being tried. "We have to have measures, goals," she said, "and we don't have that." She explained that in addition to targets and progress reports about the health of Puget Sound, "we have to have (them) for the Puget Sound Partnership itself."
The governor added, "The next time we come here, I've got to be able to ... hold the Puget Sound Partnership accountable. ... Where's the part where the Puget Sound Partnership can say ... 'Here's our job, and here's how we're doing our job?' "
What Gregoire didn't say was that the next time, she expected to be hearing it from someone other than Dicks. Within a month, rumor had it that — at the governor's behind-the-scenes insistence — Dicks was on his way out, and on November 10, the Partnership announced that he would take a position at the new University of Washington College of the Environment. On December 1, deputy director Gerry O'Keefe (who had arrived in March) took over as acting executive director. (There have been rumors about the next permanent executive director, but no hint yet of anything official.)
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