Too Many, Too Much: King County Has More Government than it Needs

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Image by Tongpradit Charoenphon from Pixabay

Recently I wrote about how the legislature could reform its processes to make participation, both for legislators and citizens, more palatable for voters and electeds.  The idea was to use 20th Century governmental models to reform the 18th Century legislative model, one example being to meet on weekends, not in career-killing long sessions.  

Here I want to address deeper structural defects in our political system. Other democracies have identified and designed their governments to avoid these structural paralyses, so reform is possible.  

Recently I attended a lunch with a knowledgeable group of local policy wonks. An ex-military and longtime federal leader observed that he doubted half of the room could identify their Member of Congress.  Knowing the crowd, I discounted his observation, but I suspect fewer than half could identify the three people representing them in the state Legislature.  Perhaps the group could name a few city or county councilmembers but certainly not all. Nor the directors on their school board.  Nor their conservation, water, sewer, or noxious-weed-control district.  (Go ahead, take the test yourself.)

For years I’ve posed a “gotcha question” in meetings, gatherings, and bars: “How many governments does King County have?”  The answer, the last time I counted, was 135.  There’s the federal government, the state, the county, 39 cities, 19 school districts, a port district, a library district, water districts, sewer districts, fire districts, park districts, Sound Transit, stadium districts, three airport districts (none of which contain SeaTac or King County International), a conservation district, a noxious weed, and a mosquito district –- and the list goes on.

Keep in mind that each of these districts has a tax base. In fact, most exist to capture a tax base authorized by the Legislature to fund the public services they provide.  The districts also have governing boards, most of these unknowns elected in the November general elections and most compensated very modestly (at best).  In  King County, we have about 800 elected officials, and that’s not counting the scores of appointed officials on governing boards for several of these governments.  For example, the King County Library District has a very robust tax base and a seven-member governing board appointed by the County Executive.  

As citizens, confronted with government dysfunction, we often propose to “solve” the problem with a new elected official and yet another layer of bureaucracy.  Concerns about the King County Sheriff’s performance led to making the appointed sheriff into an elected sheriff – a move that was recently and wisely reversed. Meanwhile, a concern with elections led to making the Director of Elections an elected position. We were fortunate the incumbent director was elected to the newly voted position, but what’s the plan to assure the next director has experience with administering elections?  

Another problem is that once these obscure boards are created, it’s often difficult to find or replace members of governing boards.  Often those elected to these governing bodies end up with life-time jobs with perquisites like travel, conventions, etc. – but rarely face competitive elections. 

Then there is the problem of ballot-bloat. Our long, exhaustive, and exhausting election ballots, with votes trailing off as voters work toward down ballot races, contrasts with British Columbia.  My follow-up gotcha question:  “How many candidates do you vote for in a Canadian national election?”  The answer is one.  In a Canadian national election, each voter chooses one candidate to represent the riding (electoral district) they live in. There will be multiple candidates and often three or more parties, but citizens get to vote for just one. 

The result is a much cleaner election process.  Each of the parties has candidates and platforms.  The expectation is that candidates support the platform, which articulate what each party sees as national and regional priorities.  In America, the profusion of candidates, issues, and messages drowns out the clear choices. 

I remember running for the state Legislature and trying to communicate what I thought about public priorities, only to be drowned out by national, statewide, regional, and ballot issues.  This cacophony makes the average voter’s job daunting.  And our tome-like voter pamphlets further demonstrate the challenge of knowledgeable voting.  

We fondly think electing office holders is an effective method for holding governments accountable, but it isn’t. The number of elected officials we elect; the striking number of jurisdictions they govern; our inability to re-allocate public resources between the jurisdictions as conditions change (governing boards work very hard to protect their tax bases) – all these factors persuade me that it is pyrrhic accountability.  

In the private sector, markets powerfully incentivize organizations to work together, integrating “value streams” to deliver products to customers.  Working together makes for effective productive processes and products that meet customer needs.  Failing to work together to deliver value sends an important market signal: in less revenue for all the groups making up the value stream.  

When markets don’t work or don’t even exist, we create public institutions and governments to provide services to the community and pay for them with taxes.  The presumably steady flow of tax dollars replaces the discipline of the market – no product, no payment. But the massive fragmentation and complexity of our public sector makes accountability extraordinarily difficult. These factors also thwart reforms adjusting to changes over time as well as collaboration. The result is government that is ineffective.  

Consider our chronic homelessness emergency.  Solving the homelessness crisis needs the direct effort of at least 60-75 of our 135 governments.  Directly through general purpose governments and school districts.  Indirectly through water and sewer districts and many of the other special-purpose districts that siphon off public resources and taxes. Our “10-year plans to end homelessness” turn into 10-year preludes to the next stab at a solution.  

Many public officials and governments have stepped up to homelessness, but they’ve traditionally done so within their own jurisdictions, with their own zealously protected strategies. The result: lack of synergy across the region.   

This need for a way to integrate the region’s approach to solving homelessness spawned the regional homeless authority as a single, regional government attempting to manage and integrate the region’s approaches to homelessness. Certainly that’s a positive step, but creating the 136th government looks a lot like a band aid not a solution.  A durable and effective solution would entail rethinking the way we deliver public services and creating true accountability for what is delivered and finding out whether desired, measurable outcomes are achieved. 

Let’s not keep doing the same failing strategy for more generations.  Bring sanity and pruning shears to the public sector.  

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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.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Good points! Add to this mess the silly idea of ranked choice voting. There isn’t a need to make ballots and voter’s guides even more cumbersome.

  2. Oh could it be so—fewer governments, fewer elects, more accountability!
    But who among them would be the first to voluntarily give up their sinecure?

  3. We have what we have for reasons. As a short term consultant to King County way back in the 1980s, I recognized, as did many others, that counties in this state were not designed to provide urban levels of services. They were attuned to provide generic services to unincorporated areas. So that begat a rapid movement toward increasing the number of cities which are better prepared to provide such services. That movement was abetted by a fear that King County’s foray into growth management could preempt local control over land use. Suddenly there was a new roster of cities with names like Shoreline and Newcastle and SeaTac.

    The “design” of our governmental structure Is primarily the purview of thoughtful, long term experts such as the writer. And they are the result of a permanent tension among citizens that may want efficiency but not at the risk of losing local control.

    There are too many but it’s far easier to create than to merge, so it just grows.

  4. Two metropolitan areas are famous for the proliferation of governments and the shortage of regional strategy: Los Angeles and Seattle. There was one serious effort at correcting this governmental overpopulation, which was the creation in 1958 of a new, independent level of government to solve big problems, which was Jim Ellis’s idea of Metro. That worked very well for sewage and transit until King County finally gobbled up Metro Transit. Maybe one way to fix the proliferation problem is to pull Metro out from under the county, merge it with Sound Transit, and take on some other big regional chores (parks, water supply, planning).

    • Dow Constantine has been running Sound Transit concurrently with METRO for a decade. For example, he evicted buses from the tunnel that METRO built for them under Third Ave (those routes now use Third Ave’s surface, to the exclusion of other vehicles) so the trains would have sole use of the tunnels. All METROs and STs activities are coordinated by Constantine: many METRO routes in the north county were redesigned so riders now transfer from buses to light rail at the Northgate station.

      The problem with the land use planning now — state, regional, and local — is it focuses on moving people to and from offices. The tech, finance, and corporate employers here now rely on distributed workforces working from homes all over western WA (and even further afield). The buses are not getting used much, nor are the trains, because they were designed to serve office buildings mostly. And that highlights the major problem with how Seattle was developed over the past two generations: too much very valuable land was set aside for development as office buildings. Those are archaic structures, depreciating in value, and largely unoccupied 24/7 as the kinds of tenants they were built to attract now don’t need them.

      • Have you ever heard the expression “One swallow doesn’t make a spring” ?

        I think it might apply to the office building/Covid situation.

  5. Metro has latent authority for those functions and either separately or as King County could regionalize those functions. Doing so would significantly reduce the number of governments and could. E done by a vote of the people.

  6. Great post. Oversight of 135 agencies (and an unnamed number of programs) is a challenge, to be sure. So is consensus decision-making.

    However, before we spend a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of a re-org, I’d like to know whether the people who read your post would support the notion of a query-able online voter’s guide: a guide with the potential to facilitate better government oversight.

    Here is some of the information an online voter’s guide could supply:
    1) Contact info for all 135 agencies;
    2) The URL for each agency’s feedback survey: i.e., a public-facing survey which voters, agency employees, and elected officials can use to ask questions, track the amount of time it takes to receive an answer, rate the answer, and share the answers they receive with other voters;
    3) Statistics, for example, the cumulative average taxes a voter in a particular zip code CURRENTLY pays – by government service and by agency. Also, the incremental average tax bill increase which a voter in a particular zip code will pay if each of the tax proposals on the ballot pass;
    4) The ability to “drill down” from the name of a particular government agency to see when it received tax dollars during the previous 5 years, how much money it received – and how much of that money it has spent.
    5) The ability to run reports which other people developed – and see their conclusions.

    QUESTION: What’s the possible downside of consolidating several of the agencies in King County?
    ANSWER: Re-organizations tend to disrupt the chain of command. Resources are spent on the re-org itself, rather than the organization’s stated objectives.

    QUESTION: Should we assume that an online voters pamphlet/oversight tool will empower voters – not just to demand better agency coordination and agency efficiency, but to ensure that their demands are met?
    ANSWER: No. The online voters pamphlet could prove useless as an oversight tool if too few people participate – or if the underlying data is not consistently categorized. The adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies.

    QUESTION: Fred/Readers: what data would YOU encourage King County to display in an online voter’s pamphlet – so that voters (and elected officials) can make more informed decisions? I don’t mean to put you on the spot: I’ll STIPULATE that it’s MUCH easier to summarize one’s “information wants” with short descriptions (as I have done here), than it is to create better decision-making tools for voters.

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