Tag: government accountability

Column | The time has come for Washington to elect its state transportation chief

Even in politically heterogeneous Washington, one issue can bring people to agreement like no other: transportation.  Democrat, Republican, or independent. Rural, suburban or urban. Employee, employer or stay-at-home mom.  Everyone is affected by their own ability – or lack thereof – to move from place to place.

Randomly strike up a conversation in Yakima, Vancouver or Seattle about the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel project – “Bertha” – and universal eye-rolling and molar-grinding will ensue.

In the crescent of ‘burbs and burgs east of Lake Washington, from Everett to Auburn, mentioning Interstate 405 tolling will elicit a similarly sour response.

Mentioning ferries among island-dwellers now qualifies as a micro-aggression.

Problems of mismanagement and waste within the ferry system are heirloom-grade dysfunctions in the culture within the State Department of Transportation.  Other more general road and bridge-related issues stemming from departmental priorities which are seriously out of step with the reality are more recent additions to a growing collection of grievances the public has with the agency.

Over decades, the changing cast of characters in the Legislature and the governor’s mansion have gripped opposite sides of a tug-of-war rope on transportation, one side pulling hard for reform and the other pushing back to maintain the status quo.

More than a decade of Democratic dominance over the state House has provided the time necessary to put the right people in charge of the right committees, a firebreak of Machiavellian brilliance in its construction, manned by representatives whose own political fate is insulated from the fires that rage around them.  There’s no better example of that stalemate than the decision by state Rep. Judy Clibborn’s (D-Mercer Island) refusal to hold a vote on a bill to remove tolling on one lane on the north section of I-405.  (Taxpayers had been told that an increase in gas taxes would be used to create the additional lane for general purpose use.)

In theory, voters can break through Clibborn’s obstruction (beyond which exist the failsafe options of a blockade by Speaker of the House Frank Chopp and a veto from Gov. Jay Inslee) at the ballot box.  Ultimately, Inslee appoints the director of the Department of Transportation who sets the tone inside the agency; Inslee could be voted on if voters chose to make the election a mandate on transportation policy.

But in the real world, the temperature of anger on single issues rarely rises to a level in state politics needed to cook an individual elected official on Election Day.  It’s a problem of diffused accountability.

It’s true, the governor does appoint the head of WSDOT, but the matter of direct accountability is less clear. After all, the governor is responsible for managing a range of things and promoting a broader agenda.  It makes the decision to reject a governor on the basis of transportation policy a bit like declining an invite to a Super Bowl party based only on the quality of the chili being served.  Because transportation is something that affects everyone, it is a matter best decided on an à la carte basis.

Voters deserve to have a more direct path of accountability when it comes to the government’s involvement in their daily lives.

The time has come to make WSDOT accountable to the people, by allowing the people to choose its top official.  Such a change would shift the agency’s relationship to taxpayers and create a mechanism through elections to align our transportation system with the needs of Washingtonians.

Let’s not kid ourselves – it won’t be easy.  The state constitution would need to be amended and that begins in the Legislature.  Would Republicans be willing to make the promise to voters that they would pass the necessary legislation if voters gave them control of both legislative bodies?  If they did campaign on such a promise – one element of a contract with Washingtonians – it would send a clear message that their party stands for direct accountability to the public on matters that affect our daily lives.

Watchdog Group Files Appeal in Key Public Records Case Against Gregoire

On Wednesday, the Freedom Foundation filed an appeal with Washington State’s Supreme Court challenging a lower court ruling in its case against the governor for her withholding of some documents requested under the Washington State’s Public Records Act.

Though Gov. Christine Gregoire won an initial victory in her fight to establish executive privilege as a legal reason for withholding information, the matter of protecting public access to important public documents is still being battled by the group that brought suit against the governor earlier this year.

Freedom Foundation general counsel Mike Reitz told NW Daily Marker that the possibility exists for the Supreme Court to set a precedent for executive privilege that could be liberally applied by whoever holds the governor’s office in the future, but he sees that as a stark departure from how the courts have previously ruled on conflict between an executive’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know.

“If they ruled in favor of the governor, that would be a game-changer,” Reitz said. “That would be the first time an appeals court in Washington has recognized executive privilege and that’s going all the back through 120 years of statehood.”

Freedom Foundation v. Gregoire was filed in April to challenge Gregoire’s right to withhold documents pursuant to a number of requests for information pertaining to her office’s involvement in the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, deliberations on medical marijuana legislation, and other high profile issues affecting public policy. Gregoire has claimed executive privilege as the basis for withholding the documents and has insisted that constitutional theory affords her the prerogative; the Freedom Foundation argued in its case that no such right exists in the state’s public records law.

In the first set of decisions in the case, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy sided with the governor’s position, and by doing so may have created the right of executive privilege for future governors. Freedom Foundation’s appeal seeks to avert the larger implication of allowing the lower court’s decision to stand, what it believes would be a government free to operate without fear of public accountability.

The Freedom Foundation coordinated the filing of its appeal with a money bomb fundraising campaign on its website and through social media. During a live broadcast on the group’s Facebook page, general counsel Mike Reitz stated that the merits of the Freedom Foundation’s position are strong and he wants to hire on additional legal muscle to ensure the best chance of a successful appeal.

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Sonntag Asks Gregoire for Veto of Performance Audit Fund Raid

State Auditor Brian Sonntag sent Governor Gregoire a letter last week asking her to veto an $8 million raid of the voter approved dedicated performance audit account.

From Sonntag’s letter requesting the veto:

“Diverting performance audit funding to support unrelated, specific activities at other agencies is wrong. It sets a precedent for future use of this money that is not in keeping with provisions of Initiative 900.

We feel strongly that Department of Revenue tax recovery auditing must be paid for by the funds generated by that activity. As an alternative, it also could be funded by money raised by the tax amnesty program, which to date has collected $343 million in back taxes, $282 million for the state and $61 million for local governments.

Along a similar line, money for the Department of Social and Health Services’ fraud investigations should come from the dollars recovered by the fraud unit, not the State Auditor’s Office performance audit funds.

Permit me to remind you that $17 million has been swept from the Performance Audits of Government Account to help balance the state’s general fund budget. Despite that, our Office has used performance audit to offer ideas to saves millions of dollars, generate millions more in new revenue and make government work better for all of us. You’ve seen it reflected in successful legislation transforming state printing and liquor operations. And we’re pleased you seized on our 2010 Performance Review idea for the previously mentioned tax amnesty program.”

Last Friday I also asked the Governor to veto the raid of the dedicated performance funds noting “It would be unfortunate to set a precedent where that dedicated account (and the funding capacity for performance audits that have already shown savings for the state) becomes a frequent target for future fund sweeps or redirection.”

If this veto dance seems like déjà vu, it is.

In 2009, the Legislature tried to sweep $29 million from the dedicated performance audit account. The Governor vetoed this raid in response to Sonntag’s request and promise to set aside funds for transfer in 2010 (the $17 million mentioned in his letter).

Hopefully she will do the same again this time to help restore the promise and integrity of the State Auditor’s performance audit program.

The Governor plans to take action on the budget and the remaining bills from the special session next Wednesday (June 15).

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