As I stood looking at my winning election certification in November 2013, I had that momentary feeling of great uncertainty made famous by Robert Redford in “The Candidate:” “Now what do I do?”
I had no books or videos on assuming public office. I could find no classes to take. It was up to me as to how I approached the lofty post of Whatcom County council member.
Sworn in one year ago, I haven’t stopped learning about the job — and enjoying every minute. There are many aspects of the job that are not what I expected, and still others that make all the sense in the world. There are myths that everything is political, when really land use is not Democrat or Republican; nor is transportation or public health. More myth — public employees work far less than those in the private sector. I see people who work day and night in our government — people who don’t ask for or want credit, though they could use a few more “Thank yous.”
As a former business owner and employer, l cannot help but approach my job through the eyes of a businessman. Government is like a business that has no competition — a monopoly. Folks wonder why everything in government has to be so complicated, include so much paperwork, and take so long. Sitting in a council seat, you see another perspective: those complications often come from laws passed on by federal or state governments. Those delays are usually the results of a cornerstone of our democracy: the publicly demanded requirement for “open government.”
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Your tax dollars pay for good work and the vast majority in local government work hard to earn it.
What have I gotten done?
1) My “plain language” resolution passed with full council support. It requires simple, direct communications rather than “bureaucracy-speak.” Less alphabet soup when describing the programs or departments, so real people can understand what government is doing.
2) We established key performance metrics policy for our county services, so that we might compare what we are doing to other peer-related performances. This year we’ll define what we want to track, a move I hope will be revealing and incentivizing — not attacking or patronizing. More staff professionalism can be seen in our staff’s willingness to help create and adopt these standards. Athletes know that having a competitor demonstrate a better way to do something is a great motivator. The same is true for business and government.
Serving as a County Council member requires lots of reading and listening.
The most exciting part of the job is bringing people together to solve problems. You get a call from a woman living next to a growing sewer mess. She says she’s called around trying to get a resolution but the stench is getting worse. All that reading starts to pay off — I know exactly who we need to call and the right staff goes out to investigate. Problem fixed within a few days. The constituent is thrilled and resumes a normal life.
In another situation, local farmers were having problems with access to water for fire suppression for food processing facilities. It was impacting job creation. By asking the Department of Ecology, the fire marshal and a local construction contractor to lay out the issues and challenges as each saw them, all the parties came together with a common desire to do right by the community. Results were achieved without compromising environmental or safety regulations and (drum roll) the best part was did not require any additional government spending.
Much has happened in these last 12 months: happily, new businesses are opening and more jobs are being created. Unlike Olympia or Washington, D.C., we are not deadlocked in a fight over everything. People want us to get things done and work as hard as they do, and so we should.
Thanks for the chance to make Whatcom a better place.
It’s a more humbling, challenging, but a far more enjoyable job than I ever imagined. We have the talent, tools, timing, and great environment to make Whatcom the place our kids will never want to leave — and that’s why I ran in the first place.