Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pelz: Appoint "a strong leader"

Dwight Pelz:
Last year a group of "political reformers" (financed by Republican business leaders) successfully passed a measure making county government non-partisan. Today that reform is just three months old, but already poised to fail its first major test. Ron Sims has just completed 12 magnificent years of service as our County Executive and has announced that he will leave to join the Obama Administration. Rather than pick a strong leader to succeed Ron, there is talk of choosing a "caretaker."
Succession of office is an important test of our democracy. When a government official resigns or passes away, provisions are made for that position to be filled and for government to continue.

For partisan offices, state law assigns the political parties a role which has allowed vacancies to be filled in an orderly, timely, and predictable fashion. The Precinct Committee Officers (PCOs) from the affected jurisdiction meet and choose three member of the party of the departed official, and forward that list to the County Council or County Commissioners, who pick one person.

Last month I traveled to Walla Walla to chair the meeting at which the PCOs convened to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Bill Grant. The PCOs designated three Democrats as suitable replacements, and forwarded that list to the 12 County Commissioners from the four counties in the 16th Legislative District. On February 21st Laura Grant-Herriott, Bill Grant's daughter, was chosen for the position and immediately sworn in.

A similar meeting took place 12 years ago when the PCOs met at the gym of Nathan Hale High School to designate a list of three Democrats to fill the last year of the term of then-County Executive Gary Locke, who was departing to be Governor. On that day, an impassioned Ron Sims stood up and gave a compelling speech about the challenges facing King County - and his ability as a leader to meet them. On that day no one called for a "caretaker" or a "placeholder." Ron was the choice of the PCOs and served for 10 months as the appointed Executive, then was elected to the post three times.

The PCOs and the Democratic Party will play no role in 2009 in filling this most recent vacancy. By state law governing vacancies in a non-partisan office, the nine members of the King County Council are charged with the responsibility of naming the next County Executive. But with some of the Council members vying for the job themselves, the Council appears unable to assemble five votes for a strong successor.

Today, instead of the terms "executive" and "leader," we hear talk of choosing a "caretaker" or a "placeholder." We hear cliches about "letting the voters decide the next County Executive, not the Council members." This is not the time for a placeholder. This is the time for the nine members of the King County Council to provide leadership. They need to take a hard vote and appoint a leader, not a caretaker.

King County faces enormous challenges. The County's economic model was in tatters before this current economic crisis began. 2009 will require real leadership in the Executive's office to maintain our courts, our public defenders and prosecuting attorneys, our jails, the Sheriff's office, environmental protection, and basic services.

Voters who chose to make the County government non-partisan were promised that government would work better because party loyalties disrupt decision-making. What we see instead is this decision being postponed because of personalities, not parties.

Political parties make our democracy function better. Congress could not make basic decisions without majority and minority caucuses. Our State Legislature would never adjourn on time without the discipline and structure provided by the parties. It is time to hold the refomers accountable for their reform and ask whether non-partisan government has improved or hindered decision making in King County?

In the past the role of the PCOs and the parties allowed us to fill the vacancy in the County Executive position with a strong leader. The five Democrats on the County Council can continue that tradition by appointing a strong Democrat as our next County Executive.

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