Reporting by Christie Stewart Stein
On May 30, 2019, for the first time in county history, a lobbyist contracted with Skagit County gave an on-camera report to the Board of Commissioners and members of the public about their lobbying efforts during the Washington State legislative session. How did this come about?
Though Skagit County has contracted for lobbying services since at least 2000, the lobbying work has been clothed in secrecy with no opportunity for Skagitonians to see how the money spent on these contracts benefitted them. In 2019, all that changed. “I really want to thank the advocates in the audience”, said Skagit County Administrator Tim Holloran. “You provoked a change.” (Skagit21 TV video at minute 35:33). Sustained citizen pressure over the course of a year and a half resulted in the public’s first glimpse of the work the county’s current Seattle-based lobbying firm, Gordon Thomas Honeywell is doing on behalf of Skagit’s people.
And then, it happened again!
In 2017, a group of Skagit citizens with long ties in the valley, and a deep love for Skagit’s public lands discovered to their shock that County Commissioners were seeking advice from overtly anti-public lands organizations based in Texas and Idaho in relation to public hearings about grizzly bear populations in the North Cascades. A public records request showed that for decades, Skagit County had been contracting with a lobbyist named Robert Weidner, who openly supported the privatizing of all public lands and has ties to extreme property rights groups. The American Lands Council (ALC) opposes national ownership of public lands. Its leadership openly expressed support for the armed group that took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon during January and February of 2016. American Stewards of Liberty (ASL) is a Texas-based firm that devotes itself to opposing the Endangered Species Act and national public lands management.
The citizen’s group learned that Weidner had been under contract with the county as far back as 2000, wining and dining the Commissioners during their annual trips to Washington DC, as well as building influence among County governments in Washington State through the Evergreen Forest County Group. In 2017, Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt was Co-Chair of this organization whose address is the same as Weidner’s office address near Washington, D.C.
The citizen’s group began attending public comment periods at Skagit County Commissioners’ meetings on Tuesday mornings every week, and urging the Commissioners to terminate the $20,000 contract with Weidner. On Sunday, December 3, 2017, the Skagit Valley Herald published an extensive article on Weidner and the controversy arising from his anti-public lands and anti-environmental positions.
Months of sustained public comment calling for the end of Weidner’s contract resulted in its brief renewal followed by cancellation. The citizen action succeeded in getting what they wanted for Skagit.
In January 2019, Skagit County Commissioners Janicki, Wesen, and Dahlstedt approved a new contract with lobbying firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell in the amount of $322,263 over a three-year period for lobbying both at the Washington State Legislature and in Washington, D.C.
Under Weidner’s many successive contracts, there had been no provision for reporting to the citizens of Skagit County. This time, the citizens group wanted the public to know what these lobbyists were doing to represent county interests. Two Skagit citizens met with Commissioner Lisa Janicki (the Board of Commissioners Chair for 2019) on February 12, 2019 with specific requests to improve transparency in county government. Two of those requests addressed the lobbyists’ work:
- That the newly contracted lobbying firm hired by Skagit County (at $9200 a month) provide regular reports to the public about their work.
- And, that the lobbying firm notify the public about opportunities for citizens to support the county’s legislative or policy goals.
In response to an email of thanks for meeting with them, Commissioner Janicki replied:
——– Original message ——–
From: Lisa Janicki firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: 2/13/19 7:07 AM (GMT-08:00)
To: Timothy Manns
Subject: Re: Thank you for meeting with us today
You’re most certainly welcome! I’m working with staff on content and getting the first evening meeting scheduled.
We’re also working on how to share timely communications from Gordon Thomas Honeywell. I like your idea of engaging community members to support local and federal issues with testimony and letter writing campaigns.
Skagit County Commissioner
(360) 416-1300 office
On May 30, 2019, Gordon Thomas Honeywell lobbyist, Josh Weiss reported in public session about what the firm had done on behalf of Skagit County during the 2019 legislative session, and how the County should prepare for the coming 2020 session.
The periodic reports of the new lobbyist during this year’s state legislative session are linked on the Board of Commissioners’ website at:
https://www.skagitcounty.net/departments/countycommissioners/legreports.htm under “Legislative Reports.”
Weiss gave no report about GTH’s work in Washington, D.C. which is handled by another team from the firm. Both County Administrator, Tim Holloran, and Commissioner Janicki expressed their expectation of a public report from that team in August 2019.
Following Josh Weiss’s report and questions from the Commissioners, retiring Skagit County Administrator, Tim Holloran, spoke. Turning to the Skagit citizens in the audience, Holloran said “The other group that I really want to thank are the advocates. You provoked a change. We had a lobbyist that I wasn’t very proud of to be honest with you, and was troubled with it for many years. A very partisan perspective.” Holloran continued to the audience,” We wouldn’t have had that quick turnaround and change if you didn’t make enough noise. It‘s one of the things I’m proud of, that we turned around in a hurry, and we made the right decision.” [See minute 38:11 of video]
This start toward improving transparency about lobbyist activities for Skagit County continued on Wednesday, August 14, 2019 when senior government affairs consultant with Gordon Thomas Honeywell, Paul Hoover made a public report to the Commissioners about the firm’s work in Washington, D.C. The on-camera presentation was followed by a work session with the Commissioners and county department heads to set goals for legislative priorities in the coming year. Members of the public were also present for the work session.
Clearly, the persistence and insistence of engaged Skagit citizens has brought a new level of transparency to lobbying activities for Skagit County government.
Christie Stewart Stein has farmed just west of Mount Vernon for 25 years. Her volunteer activities in the community have included advocating with homeless women, farmworkers and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and supporting aspiring young farmers.