Candidate Constantine on annexation, and more
I interviewed Dow Constantine this afternoon in West Seattle for a West Seattle Blog follow-up to the announcement last night that he’s running for County Executive. One of the questions I asked was about annexation, and what happens now that a Seattle City Council vote has thwarted the Memorandum of Understanding between Burien, Seattle, and two fire districts. While we try not to repurpose material too much between the two sites, it’s been suggested we repost the entire story here, so here goes:
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor/White Center Now news editor
Instead of a once-planned family vacation on a sunny beach, King County Council Chair Dow Constantine is spending this partly sunny Seattle day — the first official day of his campaign for King County Executive — doing interviews, answering phone calls, e-mails, and text messages. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is fun,” he insists, as we part ways after a conversation at West 5 (WSB iPhone photo at left), in a space the native West Seattleite also remembers from spending many a day there in boyhood, when it was West Seattle Speedway, slot cars and all.
His campaign for King County Executive has begun without a big splashy photo-op announcement – instead, the first camera he faced was one held by his own campaign for a YouTube clip declaring his candidacy (see it in our report from last night).
When he agreed to talk with WSB this afternoon — “You’re my first face-to-face interview,” he informed me as we sat down at West 5 — we asked people via Facebook and Twitter what they would ask him, if they had the chance. One of the first questions: Why hasn’t he been using Facebook and Twitter (unlike the man he hopes to succeed, who has been busy in the “social media” world)? Don’t worry, Constantine assures me, he will be — “soon.” (His campaign website has already been revised to reflect the new pursuit.)
Now, on to the meatier issues. Two of them came up at the end of our conversation – when every reporter worth her/his salt asks “what DIDN’T I ask you about, that you would want to say?” One is the big question: What’s the difference between you and the only other declared candidate so far (fellow County Councilmember Larry Phillips)?
First, he is careful to say that he and Phillips “agree on a lot of issues and have been allies.” But then: He’s a fighter, and fast to take action, Constantine contends. “When I see an injustice, a tough issue, I never hesitate to jump in. … I have not hesitated to go to battle for the things that I believe in and find important.”
So, he’s saying Phillips doesn’t, we ask? He nods, adding, “I don’t wait to see polls, take the temperature, see the wind direction before I act. I’m grounded in the community in which I was raised, and do what I think is right, not what is politically advantageous.”
What he thinks is the right thing to do now – the “key issue” facing county government in particular, and what he wants to be sure happens, if he wins the job – is maximizing how your money’s spent: “Assuring that we are getting the most value for each tax dollar, and unconditionally embracing the notion that money should be spent only on programs proven to deliver value. The measure of effectiveness is not how much money is spent on a program, but how much value it delivers, and we have to be able to measure that.”
One way in which effectiveness is being measured right now, he mentions, is the audit that’s being done on Metro Transit. “We hope it will reveal more efficiency, to make up for the lower sales-tax revenues and higher fuel costs.” He mentioned this as we asked about the forthcoming RapidRide service — with one route scheduled to run through Westwood, Fauntleroy, The Junction, and on to downtown starting in 2011, and a Delridge route on the drawing board as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct/Tunnel plan. He is hopeful that money trouble won’t change those plans: “We have to honor our commitment to voters” who approved a sales-tax increase for that forthcoming service. Regarding other transit service, it might be possible to reallocate service from other areas once those areas are served by light rail, he says, to protect service levels for areas like ours that have no chance of seeing light rail for a long time.
He rues the fact that transit service has an “overreliance” on sales-tax money now, because of past initiative votes and other action that cut funding from car-tab taxes, particularly because that creates a conflict in financially troubled times like these: “People just stop spending (meaning less sales-tax revenue), but they need transit more than ever.”
Transit isn’t the only service area where he says the tax situation is out of kilter. We began the conversation by asking a reader’s question about how to pay for public-health services which have been threatened by the county budget crunch, and that leads to a long musing from Constantine about the challenges of the current funding situation for that service and others.
“The taxing authority the state provides (to counties and other jurisdictions) is always regressive,” Constantine laments. “It’s unpalatable to ask people who are already hurting to give more money. … What we need is statewide tax reform.” He recounts having worked on that issue after being elected to the State Senate in 2000, and helping create the Washington State Tax Structure Study Committee, also known as the Gates Commission because it was chaired by William H. Gates, Sr. (aka “Bill’s father”; see the group’s final report here).
Some of that group’s recommendations were put into place, he says, such as the creation of the so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” but otherwise, in his view, the state tax system is “Swiss cheese,” the product of intensive lobbying, taking the biggest financial bite out of the money of people who don’t have the resources to lobby for their own interests. And he brings it back to the question about public-health funding: “We need to fix the underlying problem of how to pay for necessary services.”
This is where, he says, his background in state government, where he served for six years as a state legislator, will be helpful if he is elected as County Executive: “King County has had a pretty poor relationship with Olympia for a long time. One of the first things I intend to do is to bring together my friends and former colleagues in the state legislature — I haven’t been gone that long — and from the governor’s office, and our 39 cities (in King County), to have a serious conversation, about who is going to provide which services, and how it’s going to be paid for. It’s is incumbent upon the new executive to change the tenor of the conversation with fellow elected officials.”
That includes the conversation between the leaders of King County and the city of Seattle. While Constantine notes that he has not asked (so far) for former colleague Greg Nickels‘ endorsement (“he’s a former colleague of Larry Phillips too,” he notes), he says, “I expect, if elected, to work well with him, perhaps end some of the rivalry between the mayor and the executive’s office that has slowed down progress on regional issues.”
While some may complain that Constantine is an “insider,” he sees no downside to having been an elected official for more than a dozen years, but also points out that he worked in the private sector before entering politics: “I had many jobs … I practiced law after college, had to make payroll, dealt with the difficulties of running a small business.” But also, regarding having worked in three different branches of government: “It is an advantage to have some experience and know what you’re doing. I have served in different capacities in the (county) council … chairing Budget, Land Use, and Transportation committees … and now chairing the council … I have a pretty good, comprehensive knowledge of how county government works. But, I haven’t been around so long that I’m part of the furniture — I still have a fresh view of what needs to be changed.”
Back to the matter of those essential services, and which governments are going to pay for which ones — that brings us to a subject that remains top-of-mind in West Seattle, the issue of building a new jail for Seattle’s municipal-misdemeanor offenders, now that the county has put cities on notice it will no longer house those inmates.
One of the sites under consideration is in West Seattle, but Constantine affirms that he believes “the downtown option is the best solution, assuming we can get agreement from all parties involved.” He believes these services remain the cities’ financial responsibility, but says the county should be “the convener” to try to help reach a solution. He says “getting everyone to agree to pay their fair share” could be a stumbling block as a deal is sought, however. Since a jail site isn’t to be chosen until next year, after the new executive takes office, he says that in that role, he “would be trying to facilitate siting of the jail in a place with the fewest impacts on neighborhoods … and the only one offered up (meeting those criteria) is the site downtown.”
The city of Seattle and the county have been involved in another somewhat thorny issue lately: The future of the North Highline unincorporated area. In Constantine’s view “Burien and Seattle have been very responsible” in reaching an agreement that gave each first rights of refusal to seek annexation of certain parts of that area – but he considers it “disconcerting that the Seattle City Council voted against (the agreement), without the benefit of full, good information. (During the debate preceding that vote a week ago), it seemed like there was a lot of misunderstanding.” But he believes it’s not too late to work something out, and he warns, “There’s going to have to be better recognition that the neighborhoods of North Highline are functionally part of the (adjacent) cities, whether there are borders or not.”
We asked him to clarify whether he was saying he’s in favor of Seattle annexing most of White Center and the rest going to Burien, as potentially facilitated in the process set up under the now-on-ice agreement, and he said, “I’m supportive of the Memorandum of Understanding setting up an orderly process of asking the citizens. It had a timeline. The ultimate result is not as great a concern as an orderly process in which the people have their say.”
And now, the people of King County will have their say later this year on whether to choose him as the next County Executive. For the first time, the candidates will run without party designations, because of the charter amendment voters passed last year, designating county offices including the executive and councilmembers as nonpartisan. Constantine opposed the amendment, even though he says it’s good news for his party — “The most obvious effect is that the Republican party is not assured of having a candidate on the ballot in the general election … if I were a Republican, I’d be kind of mad about that.”
Whatever the party or lack of one, it’s clear he is pursuing a campaign theme of achieving, and verifying, results. He recalls writing and passing proposals for performance assessments, after King County was given a “C” grade for achieving results. As a result, he says, “every county agency had to declare its missions and goals … we’ve made a lot of progress but there’s still a lot to do until we can budget based on clear, objective demonstrations of what works and what doesn’t, as opposed to traditional budgeting, where you just figure out how much it will cost to do next year what you did last year.”
Next steps toward figuring out whether Dow Constantine will be doing next year what he’s doing this year (his council seat isn’t up till 2011) or moving up to County Executive (from the county elections calendar):
June 5 – deadline for candidates to file
August 18 – primary election narrows the field to the top two vote-getters
November 3 – general election
And in the short run, people to call, to e-mail, and to see in person, starting with the Washington State Democrats’ Crab Feed tonight in Lacey; then it’s back to county business — in fact, this week’s council agenda includes several of the issues discussed in our chat with Constantine today.
Before we part ways, he says he’s hoping through all those conversations and e-mails to continue shaping his candidacy and priorities, so if you have something you’d like him to know, you can reach him through his campaign website (or, at least till we see that Facebook/Twitter/etc. presence turn up – his opponent has a head start there).
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