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Saturday, July 2, 2022

How To Fix our Citizen Governance

We’re past filing deadlines now and so we know our choices for the top two slots for the fall in each legislative district race.  As others have noticed, this cycle’s attrition rate exceeds the norm and wondered why. Explanations include the usual list of suspects:  More time with family, stress of a polarized political world, etc. But as one who served in the Legislature from Mercer Island, I have a different perspective. 

First, keep in mind that I grew up in the city manager system.  A product of the early 20th Century progressive era, the city manager system recognized that the technology and complexity of the late industrial age affected government as well as industry.  The skills, knowledge, and experience required to provide modern public services like roads, water and sewage systems and social services required trained and experienced professionals.  

Civil service reforms addressed part of this need, but often the task of finding competent executive leadership through political elections failed.  City management as a profession, developing public-sector chief executive officers over decades of their careers, became a popular solution across the Western United States, at least in newer cities organized through the mid-20th Century.  

Central to the city manager form is the process of selection and accountability.  It’s simple.  The manager works for the city council.  The job’s tenure is simple, too.  Four votes of seven and you’re a city manager.  Three votes of seven and you’re a former city manager.  All this is clearly understood by both sides when executing the employment contract.

Consequently, accountability lies clearly and completely with the city council.  Council doesn’t like what the city’s doing? Get a new city manager. If citizens don’t like what the city’s doing?  Vote out the council.  

Contrast this with the 18th Century American legislative design.  Don’t like a policy? Talk to your representative. They’ll tell you it’s the Senate.  Or the Executive.  

When I was in the Legislature, we called those in the other party the opposition, but we both called those across the rotunda in the other chamber the enemy, blaming failure on the other branch or on the governor.  But getting things done?  

Both the legislative and the city manager forms assume part-time policy makers.  Most every state legislature remains part time and I believe every city-manager-based city council consists of part-time policy makers.  At best this increases the diversity of experience, the pool of potential candidates, and their connections to their constituents.  

In my experience, this works well at the city level.  As a council member and mayor (typically the mayor of a city-manager form serves as the “president of the council” never as an executive), I could continue my career at Boeing, have a family, and serve.  Time management could be a challenge, but it was a doable balancing act.  

As a legislator, I spent at least two to three months each year in Olympia.  While some legislators can commute from home, I found the two and a half to three hour a day commute problematic, so ended up living temporarily in Olympia during sessions. But, even setting aside the commute, the simple fact the Legislature took big blocks of every year undercut any ability to deliver value to a day job and stunted any career path.  

In the old days, pre-MacDonald Douglas merger, Boeing had a policy encouraging employees to become citizen legislators, making it possible to serve and remain employed.  Over the years, many Boeing employees and managers, myself included, took advantage of that support, but make no mistake, even in those halcyon days career progression halted at best.  Few companies retain such policies today. 

During my time in Olympia, I often mused on alternatives.  Did we have to be encased in the amber of a 18th Century agrarian-based structure?  Few of us have the luxury of a winter season to mosey across the state on horseback to serve a few months in the Legislature.  Even farmers work year round.

So, what if we stopped having concentrated legislative sessions?  What if we shifted to legislative weekends, from Friday to Sunday twice a month?  And spread them around the state?  In a few hours legislators can get from just about any corner of the state to any other. 

The first weekends, I mused, could be committee work and the second weekends devoted to committee action and full sessions.  The Senate and House could meet in different cities and expose the legislators and the public to the processes and diversity of the state.  

Notice the benefits: Losing every other weekend protects most of the week and alternate weekends for jobs and families. It also exposes legislators and more the state’s population to the work of a pluralistic democracy.  There would be scheduling and logistic issues, but hybrid technology helps with logistics.

My suggestion may have flaws, but thinking about how to make legislatures more transparent, accountable, and part-time endeavors for ordinary working folks seems worth the effort.  Democracy, endangered in many ways, depends on it.  

Fred Jarrett
Fred Jarrett
Currently enjoying retirement after of public service and a long career, Fred’s been an active participant our region’s political life for over five decades. Most recently, Fred lead the executive branch of King County government, the King County Executive Leadership Team and the Executive’s Best Run Government Initiative. Previously a state senator, he served four terms in the state House of Representatives, after stints as Mercer Island Mayor and as a city council and school board member. Mr. Jarrett has also had a 35-year career at The Boeing Company.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Weird to hear Jarrett extol “pluralistic democracy” principles. He was one of the driving forces behind Sound Transit’s formation, and its grandiose undertakings. There’s nothing democratic (or pluralistic for that matter) about how those local legislators are appointed.

  2. Tacoma has a City manager type of government. It’s a smaller City than Seattle of course, but City government does function better than the Seattle City government does. Or at least it did. I think lately Tacoma has been overrun by the same activist fueled dysfunction that has kept Seattle hamstrung for years.

    The first thing needed to keep Local government functioning is keeping it local. City Council doesn’t need to be grandstanding on national and even international issues they have no control over. Condemning Israel’s actions while the West Seattle bridge is falling apart is just crazy. Parks, police, public safety, zoning, planning for growth… work on the problems closest to you.

    The second thing needed is a way keep the public informed and engaged at public meetings without promoting this weird public improvisational theater activists turn every public meeting into. City Council meetings should be done on Zoom with chat messaging for citizens to weigh in on. No more in person meetings where activists want their “3 minutes of glory” to rant about God knows what. That only makes the meetings go on for hours and nobody changes anybody’s mind. It’s theater, not government. Feel strongly? Write an email. Kshama Sawart has become Seattle’s leading theater director, (and the most ineffective pol). Every public meeting is packed by her “improv troupe” with the directive of silencing any and all opposition. Control the Stage! that’s the activists mantra. This wacky behavior drives many reasonable people out of public service.

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