Two of the three Thurston County Commission chairs are up for election this year, creating the potential for considerable change in South Sound politics.
That would be a mistake because incumbents Cathy Wolfe and Sandra Romero have exhibited great leadership by recognizing the impacts of the coming recession early in 2008 and acting decisively to make cuts in personnel and reorganizing county operations for savings and efficiencies.
While other governments, such as the state and cities such as Olympia, mostly ignored the fiscal warning signs, Wolfe and Romero were leading the charge to reduce the cost and size of county government.
By doing so they restored financial health to Thurston County.
Wolfe and Romero voted in 2009 to adopt the 13 principles for good fiscal health proposed by Deputy Auditor Gary Alexander, a longtime Republican state legislator. Those 13 principles are printed on the first pages of county budgets.
Alexander confirmed Thursday that Thurston County finances are in a good position with a $15 million general fund ending balance, which is a two-month reserve and satisfies state requirements.
Seeing the recession coming, Wolfe and Romero trimmed $10 million from the budget, reduced full-time equivalent positions by 168 and consolidated the county down to eight departments. They did that without raising taxes and while paying down $6 million in debt.
That sounds like good financial management. Wolfe and Romero deserve credit for their fiscal foresight and willingness to tackle the hard questions early in this recession. The commissioners showed chutzpah four years ago by standing firm when the former sheriff fought cuts in his department – he has endorsed the two challengers in these races – but it was the right thing to do.
For this reason alone, Wolfe and Romero have each earned another term in office and voters should re-elect them.
Wolfe, a Democrat, is being challenged this year by Karen Rogers, who says she also prefers the Democratic party label, for District 1.
Voters have chosen the highly effective Wolfe, a four-term former state legislator, to three consecutive terms on the Thurston County Commission. Although her challenger brings experience and expertise, Wolfe is the better choice.
Rogers calls herself a “populist” who is not concerned about winning or losing a political battle, but doing what is best for her constituency. She’s currently serving the third year of a four-year term on the Olympia City Council.
She’s running on her repute as an independent thinker, not afraid to challenge the majority view, as well as her fiscal conservatism and degree in wetland ecology.
Unfortunately, Rogers has bought into the rhetoric of county commission haters who are angry with the recently updated Critical Areas Ordinance and is flat out wrong about the county’s financial position. By aligning herself with some of the most divisive elements in the county, she furthers her reputation for not playing well with others.
She repeats horror stories – publicized by STOP Thurston County – of people losing their homes because of the CAO, but county officials say none of those have held up when scrutinized.
Rogers also aligned herself with renegade landowner Jon Pettit, who continues to defy county regulations requiring him to obtain permits for camping on his Deschutes River property. Pettit was recently found in contempt of court and fined $1,500 for ignoring a court order to comply. Petit says he is “following God’s will” by disobeying the county’s rules.
Wolfe has more big ideas for a second term, highlighted by keeping Thurston County on a financially sustainable path, thanks to the frugal culture she helped create in 2008. She also sees major challenges preparing for “Obamacare” changes and creating a common assessment process with other jurisdictions on health and human services.
In District 2, incumbent Romero, a Democrat, is seeking a second term over challenger Andrew Barkis, a Republican.
Voters elected Romero six times to the state House, where she served on the natural resources and the land use and government reform committees. She chaired several committees during her 12 years, including the green building task force.
Romero is also a former Olympia City Council member.
Her challenger, Barkis, is the best candidate fielded by Republicans in recent history, who shows promise in the political arena.
But his failure to investigate the facts about Thurston County’s financial picture, instead of accepting the rhetoric of groups such as STOP Thurston County, clearly indicates he needs more seasoning to become an effective elected official.
Romero has worked hard to build trusting relationships with the other jurisdictional players in the South Sound. She represents Thurston County at LOTT, Intercity Transit, Thurston Regional Planning Council, Economic Development Council and the Nisqually River Council.
She has worked hard helping county farmers develop an agritourism industry, despite the charges emanating from the politically motivated Farm Bureau.
In response to Barkis’ suggestion that Thurston’s CAO is more restrictive than the ordinance adopted in Lewis County, Romero says that’s a good thing. “Lewis allows building in the flood plain. We don’t want to be like them.”
If elected to a second term, Romero would focus on balancing non-essential services with fiscal sustainability, getting the new jail up and running to save money in repairing the old jail and getting out from under expensive leases by consolidated storage needs into the county-owned 3400 Building.
Voters should re-elect both Romero and Wolfe to the county commission.