A Missed Opportunity

Reporting and Commentary by Tim Manns 

When elected leaders choose to avoid transparency and deny citizen involvement, we need to ask why. An important recent example illustrates this too familiar pattern in Skagit County government. This year, the crucial job of County Administrator was filled without the opportunity for residents to hear from the candidates, learn about them, or share with our County Commissioners ideas about a position that affects us all. We’re once again left with the impression that the Commissioners prefer the people of Skagit County just quietly pay their county taxes and then show no interest in government. Why is the County Administrator position important to all Skagit residents? Read on.

After ten years as County Administrator, Tim Holloran retired in May 2019. Anticipating this event, in a press release on February 6, 2019, the County Commissioners announced that they had hired executive consulting firm CPS HR to identify suitable candidates to replace Holloran. Residents requested an opportunity to hear from the candidates in a public setting and to ask them questions but not to participate in the selection. In a March 7, 2019, article, the Skagit Valley Herald reported, “Commissioner Lisa Janicki said there will not be a public interview at any point in the hiring process.” This apparently meant there would be no opportunity of any sort for the public to hear from or talk with the candidates for Administrator.

Several candidates identified by CPS HR visited Skagit County to meet the Commissioners and department heads, and one was offered the Administrator position. After the meetings and a look-around the area, the chosen candidate declined the offer. As far as we know, no other offers were made. On May 21st, a County press release announced that Skagit’s long-time Director of Budget and Finance, Trisha Logue, would add “Interim County Administrator” to her responsibilities. Four months later, with no accompanying news release and no notice in the press, Logue’s interim status changed to permanent, and she now serves as both Budget Director and County Administrator. A Deputy Administrator position is apparently intended to make it possible for Logue to do both jobs.

In the absence of a news release or press coverage, word gradually spread that the Skagit County Commissioners had chosen Tim Holloran’s permanent successor. We assume that Logue, with her long experience in Skagit County government, will perform well as Administrator, at least as well as a person can within the awkward and archaic structure of Skagit County government. We wish her well. We hope she will have the Commissioners’ attention should she suggest ways to adapt county government for the 21st century and that she will encourage the Commissioners to welcome citizen involvement in the government meant to serve them.

Why does it matter that the County Commissioners did not allow a transparent process in selecting Tim Holloran’s successor? The answer lies in the problems the Commissioners have repeatedly created for themselves with a lack of transparency in decision-making, giving the impression they don’t really see themselves as serving all the people of Skagit County. And it lies in the awkward, archaic structure of Skagit County government.

At statehood in 1889, the Washington State Constitution provided for county government to consist of three elected commissioners. The primary duty of commissioners was building and maintaining county roads. In the mid-20th century, recognizing the effects of population growth and the much wider range of county responsibilities, provisions were adopted to allow county residents to design their own system of government better adapted to current reality. Skagit County voters have so far not chosen to do this (that is, have not written and adopted a “charter”). Consequently, our county still follows the system established in 1889. Under the three commissioner system, any two commissioners constitute a quorum and can pass ordinances and make a wide range of other decisions affecting the lives of Skagit’s now 128,000 residents.

The Skagit County Commissioners oversee many, but not all, county functions. The list of their responsibilities, ranging from public health to public works, is on their website. They do not oversee the work of the county’s other elected officials: Prosecuting Attorney, Sheriff, Coroner, Clerk, etc., though the Commissioners control the overall county budget and thereby significantly influence the operation of all areas of County government. Note that neither the Commissioners nor any other person or group of elected or unelected people has overall responsibility for the County’s functioning.

So, where does the County Administrator come into this picture? The Administrator carries out the decisions of the County Commissioners, even though the Commissioners, not the Administrator, technically supervise the departments for which they are responsible. The Administrator plays a crucial role in trying to make this 129-year old, cobbled-together system work in a far more complex society than existed at statehood, when 8,800 people lived here versus 128,000 today.

A further complication in the structure of Skagit County government involves an important act meant to ensure transparency. Under Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (RCW 42.30), the County Commissioners can only discuss, deliberate on, or decide about County matters in a public meeting. Any two Commissioners constitute a quorum, and so two, or all three, Commissioners meeting in the hallway or sitting in a restaurant or meeting anywhere but in a publicly announced meeting cannot discuss county business. All discussion and deliberation involving two or three commissioners must by law take place at an advertised public meeting. [If you attend the Commissioners’ public meetings you know how little discussion and deliberation actually take place there.]

The only even potentially practical way to get anything done with this structure and these requirements is to have a person whose job it is to go to each commissioner in turn, get their take on a given issue, try to determine whether there’s consensus and what it might be, and then go to the relevant county employees for action on the perceived sense of the commissioners. This is the Administrator’s job. Most weeks, the County Commissioners do meet in public session for parts of a day or two and make some decisions, but not enough to account for much of the work of our large county government. The Administrator’s ability to make sense of three different Commissioners’ inputs and combine them to get action on any of the county’s many challenges is key to this rickety old system working at all.

Clearly, the County Administrator is in a strong position to influence the Commissioners’ decisions and could reasonably be regarded as the unelected, fourth Commissioner. It makes sense that the Commissioners select this person who must all but read their minds and somehow carry out their wishes even when contradictory. It also makes sense that the taxpaying public whose lives are influenced by both the Commissioners’ decisions and the Administrator’s actions would be afforded an opportunity to know and understand the system better and to be informed about who the Administrator is, the role of the position, and how candidates for the position understand that role.

Transparency in county government should be promoted rather than avoided. Skagit County needs informed citizens who can see and understand how the decisions are being made that affect them. There is little such transparency in Skagit County government today. Why would the County Commissioners choose to exclude the public from seeing their Administrator selection process in action? No one is in a better position than the Commissioners to know how poorly the present system functions. Maybe they would rather we not know. Good luck, Administrator Logue. We’re counting on you.

Tim Manns moved to Skagit County in 1992 to work on the staff of North Cascades National Park. In retirement, he volunteers for conservation organizations dedicated to keeping the Skagit a special place.

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