Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)
"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.)
"In the near term, the Partnership has to become more visible," says Bill Ruckelshaus, former chair and still a member of the Partnership's leadership council. "It has to be known as the place where people go to get the truth about Puget Sound."
Does that mean new leadership that can raise the organization's profile, rather than merely make the trains run on time? “We need to have both,” says Northwest Straits Commission director Ginny Broadhurst, “and it doesn't have to be in one person.” Whoever runs the organization, “they really need to provide the backbone for doing the right thing,” says Fletcher of People for Puget Sound.
The Partnership still must prove that it knows how to look in the mirror. How can it deal with Gregoire's criticism? "You've got to talk with people," says acting Executive Director O'Keefe. "We just need to ask people, 'What are your expectations? What will it look like when we're meeting your expectations?'" O'Keefe says that he is "very confident" of meeting the governor's standards.
Clearly, the Partnership has disappointed a lot of people who had hoped for a higher profile and more visible progress. Whether or not anyone could have moved the state legislature and bureaucracy further in the past three years' economic and political environment is unclear. But obviously, it shouldn't have taken the Partnership three years to come up with a list of 20 “dashboard indicators” by which to gauge progress. But the dashboard indicators were unveiled last summer. Next, “we need to set targets,” O'Keefe says. The organization is still working on numerical targets that give the dashboard indicators some specificity. Using a medical analogy, O'Keefe says the dashboard indicators “are meant to be sort of the equivalents of pulse, blood pressure, temperature. . . . The next step will be to define what 'healthy' looks like.”
O'Keefe explains that although one dashboard indicator is the spawning biomass of Pacific herring, no one knows what that herring biomass would be in a healthy Sound. How many herring should we have? How many herring do we have now?
“We're building something,” O'Keefe says, and suggests that the appropriate questions are pretty well the same ones you'd ask about a construction project; you just have to “ask yourself, are you on track to deliver a completed product on time?”
At this point, no one knows whether we're on track or not. Ruckelshaus says the group has “two almost entirely different needs.” In the long term, he says, the organization “has to put in place a series of systems” to tell us how we're doing. “The indicators are good enough to get us going,” he says, but “we need to monitor those indicators” and “we don't have a monitoring system in place yet.”
Legislators have always been reluctant to spend money on monitoring. There are, of course, plenty of scientists out there generating lots of data all the time. But it's not coordinated to provide the kind of focused information the Partnership needs, Ruckelshaus explains. Partly, he says, that stems from jealousies and conflicts over professional turf. And partly, it stems from piecemeal federal requirements that isolate research projects in separate silos.
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