Since becoming communications director for the Environmental Protection Agency transition team, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has drawn criticism from some Whatcom County constituents who worry he isn’t dedicating enough attention to his elected duties in the state Legislature.
Ericksen has missed at least 75 percent of the committee meetings he was scheduled to attend so far this legislative session, attending five meetings early in the session, and missing at least 17 as of Tuesday afternoon. He has not attended committee meetings since Jan. 12.
Unlike Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, who resigned after accepting a full-time role with the U.S. secretary of agriculture, Ericksen said he will keep his role in the Senate while also working in his temporary position with the EPA.
However, Ericksen told The Bellingham Herald on Tuesday that he is staying in touch with Olympia, and is confident he won’t have a problem keeping up with what is going on in his committees while he is in Washington, D.C.
“Yes, it’s difficult, but thank goodness for cellphones, computers, Skype,” Ericksen said. “I’m on top of everything. I’m working on my committee, on my bills, on sponsoring legislation. I’m doing all my duties as a senator.”
Ericksen said he was incredibly honored that the president of the United States had asked him to serve as one of the first 200 people on his transition teams.
“I want to stress this is a unique situation to be working directly for the president,” Ericksen said. “I think that that will have incredible long-term benefits for the people of the 42nd and the people I represent.”
When asked to clarify, Ericksen said having a state senator in D.C. “working with agencies that have regulatory control over the 42nd District is incredibly important to the area.”
“I think the benefits for Whatcom County and Washington state will be significant based on what I’m doing today,” he said.
Can you do two jobs?
Before he accepted the position, Ericksen said, he checked with ethics staff at the EPA, the Washington State Legislature, and with outside legal experts, to make sure working at both jobs would be allowable.
“I am very confident I am operating in the ethical standards in statute and policy in Washington state, and in statute and policy in D.C.,” Ericksen said. “Both with the letter of the law and the intent of the law.”
Under Washington case law that tested whether officials could hold two government jobs, it was decided that if the second job is temporary, it passes muster.
Ericksen’s role with the transition team could last until June, but he said it could also end sooner if a new administrator comes on, or if he were to take another job.
“I could decide I want a permanent job back in D.C., in which case I would resign the Senate seat immediately if I do that, but I don’t think I want to do that,” Ericksen said. “I don’t anticipate moving my family to Washington, D.C., for a permanent position back here.”
So legally, Ericksen said, he feels fine doing both jobs.
In the first few weeks of the session, Ericksen missed more than half of the meetings of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications committee, of which he is chairman. He also missed all but the first meeting of the Transportation committee, and all but the first meeting of the Financial Institutions and Insurance committee, of which he is vice chairman.
Those kinds of absences led citizens like Bellingham attorney Stephen Jackson to call Ericksen out for not doing the work he was elected to do.
Jackson created a Twitter account called “Where’s Doug?” (@wheresdoug42) as a humorous way to point out Ericksen’s absences. He has tweeted sassy remarks both asking where Ericksen is, and tweeting as though he is Ericksen.
“I think that an elected official needs to show up to his committee meetings and to hear input from the public,” Jackson said.
Ericksen also missed a hearing on a bill he sponsored that would reverse a decision to include the cutout for a fourth pier at Cherry Point in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. He said Tuesday he had not yet had a chance to listen to the testimony given at that Jan. 24 hearing.
In the end, Ericksen said he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep everyone happy, and he thought some people might try to take advantage of the situation to work in their political favor.
“I’m not going to claim I’ve listened to every minute of every committee meeting I’ve missed,” he said. “But we have bill summaries that list the summaries of testimony, who gave it and what it was.”
Bellingham Democratic Precinct Committee Officer Michael Shepard said he was concerned about Ericksen’s choice to work in both jobs. He created a blog at HalfWorkHalfPay.wordpress.com, and a change.org petition calling on Ericksen to resign his Senate seat or refund pay to taxpayers for days he isn’t in Olympia this session.
“I just don’t think there are enough hours in the day and enough brain power to do those jobs with the commitment they deserve,” Shepard said. “It’s the ultimate irony to pride yourself on fiscal conservatism while double-dipping on the taxpayer’s dime.”
As a senator, Ericksen is paid $45,474 for the year, and can collect a $120 per diem.
Ericksen said Tuesday that he will continue to collect his full salary while doing both jobs, but would not take his per diem when he is not in Olympia.
When asked whether he also was taking a salary as communications director, Ericksen joked that he thought so, but wasn’t sure since he hadn’t been paid yet.
“I’m definitely losing money off this deal,” he said. “Flying back and forth, having to find a place to live here, living here, eating here, anytime you move to a new place, there are costs you incur. And those are higher to have short-term places to sleep and stuff.”
Shepard also filed a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Board, and said he and other people are looking at possibly gathering signatures to start a recall process against Ericksen if he does not resign his seat.
Ericksen planned to be back in Washington state by Wednesday.