What's your definition of politically independent?

Thurston County will soon be governed by an all-independent Board of County Commissioners. They talk about what that means.
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Thurston County will soon be governed by an all-independent Board of County Commissioners. They talk about what that means.

Politics & Government

What does it mean to have an independent Thurston County Commission?

December 17, 2016 04:17 PM

Thurston County government is about to get shaken up.

Retired Thurston County Sheriff Gary Edwards and former Tenino Police Chief John Hutchings will be sworn into office Dec. 28 to replace retiring Democratic commissioners Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe. After that, all three members of the Board of County Commissioners will be elected officials who have labeled themselves political independents.

Hutchings and Edwards will join Bud Blake, who was elected two years ago, ousting former Commissioner Karen Valenzuela. Blake’s election brought an end to an all-female, all-Democratic streak on the commission.

“We’ve gone from a pretty liberal county commission to what really is a pretty conservative county commission,” said former Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican who was elected five times as Thurston County auditor. “Part of what happened here was a reaction to thinking they’ve gone a little too far in particular in terms of land use items, and it’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way.”

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During the past few years, several county issues have sparked outrage, particularly among folks who live in the more rural areas of the county. They include:

▪ Pocket gophers: The county’s response to the federal listing of the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act caused a major rift, prompting a lawsuit against the county from the Olympia Master Builders, the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce and Hinkle Homes. Critics say the county’s policies in response to the listing — biologists must survey properties in certain areas of the county for gophers or gopher habitat as part of the land-use permit application process — is causing too much red tape for builders, businesses and landowners.

▪ Annual septic fees: Earlier this month, about 100 people attended a public hearing about new fees for property owners with septic tanks. Some said the proposed fees, which ranged from $19 to $57 a year, would have been too costly for older residents and families who live in poverty. Others said the county didn’t have the science to back up the countywide program that officials said would help keep drinking water safe and clean. On Friday, the county commissioners voted 2-1 to adopt a $10 annual fee for about 42,000 properties in the county. The lower fee will fund a scaled-down program to administer the county’s on-site sewage system management plan, officials say.

▪ Cuts in law enforcement funding: The county has been dealing with a loss in revenue for several years in a row. In 2013, the Thurston County commissioners sliced $1.2 million from the Sheriff’s Office budget. The following year, the commissioners instituted a budget freeze, which amounted to a 3 percent budget reduction because of cost increases, said Sheriff John Snaza.

▪ Title 26: In February, Thurston County commissioners voted 2-1 to adopt Title 26, a code that county officials say will roll numerous land use enforcement regulations into one. County officials say the new code will ensure that compliance actions are consistent, regardless of the code violation. Common land-use violations range from storage of junk vehicles and building projects without permits to illegally filled wetlands and cut trees that are protected by environmental rules. But many residents spoke against the ordinance, saying it’s a power grab by county government.

Commissioner Bud Blake said he will miss Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe, the outgoing commissioners. He said he is looking forward to an all-independent commission that won’t feel obligated to tow a party line.

Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Though he was outvoted on several of the board’s more contentious decisions, Blake said he found support from Romero and Wolfe on numerous issues, including reducing the jail population, diversion programs, the Triage center and salmon passages.

He said he wishes them the best in retirement.

“They are very bright leaders, and they have done a lot of great things,” he said. “We might disagree on some issues, but that’s part of the process. … They’re great leaders, and I will miss them greatly.”

Thurston County resident Joel Graham attended the public hearing on the proposed septic fees and he said he’s excited about the makeup of the new commission.

“I think they’re going to change a lot, and I think we’re going to see more representation for the public,” he said.

Graham said he hopes the new commissioners will fulfill their campaign promises of increasing support for public safety, specifically money to pay for more sheriff’s deputies. He said he didn’t agree with the Democrat-controlled commission.

“They’ve been more concerned about, I don’t know what they call them, the ground squirrels or something,” Graham said. “I don’t think that’s too important for most of us.”

Carolyn Lattin, owner of Lattin’s Country Cider Mill and Farm near East Olympia, said the commission has imposed regulations that make it difficult for small businesses to survive. She said she is also looking forward to an all-independent commission.

“I like it because they’re going to look at both sides,” Lattin said.

Edwards, 70, who lives on Lawrence Lake south of Yelm, will be the commissioner with the most political experience. He was elected Thurston County sheriff five times as a Republican. Back then, he said, he tried to push to make it a nonpartisan office.

“It left a large portion of the community feeling like I did not represent them, and I actually did,” Edwards said. “I tried to attend all of the Democratic functions as well as the Republican functions, and I was never very well received.”

Commissioner-elect Gary Edwards said he ran as a nonpartisan candidate because he wants to keep partisan politics out of county government.

Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

Edwards said he ran as “no party affiliation” in this election because he doesn’t believe partisan politics are needed on the County Commission. He said he wants to make the county more business friendly and create a commission that’s more responsive to its residents.

“I’m not going to have that adversarial role,” Edwards said in an editorial board meeting with The Olympian before the election. “I’m going to have the role of openness, and we’re there to help you get your job done.”

Hutchings, 63, lives in an unincorporated area of southeast Olympia. This will be his first elected office.

“I was told, ‘You’re going to be busy,’ ” he said. “… I’m coming to realize, ‘Oh good grief, I guess I will be busier than I expected.’ My calendar is packed already, and I haven’t even been sworn in yet.”

Hutchings said he ran as a political independent because that’s how he worked during his 35-year career in law enforcement, which included decades with the Olympia Police Department and a short stint as Tenino police chief.

“I had to remain apolitical and I had to bring opposing sides together and find common ground, and using the best issue-based and evidence-based reasoning,” he said. “… This is about the art of compromise, really.”

But Thurston County Democrats chairwoman Katie Nelson said she doesn’t believe Edwards, Hutchings or Blake are truly “independents.” She said their campaigns were largely funded by people and organizations that support Republican candidates.

“I believe they intentionally misled the voters of this county,” Nelson said. “… They are not independents. They are Republicans by every measure.”

Commissioner-elect John Hutchings, right, said he ran as a political independent because that’s how he worked during his 35-year career in law enforcement with the Olympia Police Department and as Tenino police chief.

Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

The two commissioner-elects attended a three-day training session with the Washington State Association of Counties, where they learned about the reality of their new jobs, from open meetings rules to insurance liabilities. They also spent some time at the courthouse talking to their predecessors, the interim county manager and other staff members.

“I think that’s crucial at this point, to be able to just give them that basic lay-down of structure and personnel and funding and all of those things associated with the services we provide,” Blake said.

Hutchings said the incoming commission already has begun talking about committee work they’ll need to divide up.

“For me, one of the hot topics is going to be mental health, working with the BHO (Thurston-Mason Behavioral Health Organization) and working with the innovative courts and law and justice,” Hutchings said. “And moving those innovative justice processes along to minimize costs, restore lives (and) minimize the impact in the jail.”

Edwards said he plans to change the attitude around the courthouse.

“Right off the bat, we’re going to post the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Washington and we’re going to put the Pledge of Allegiance up behind the flag, and we’re going to live by that every day,” he said.

Edwards also wants to make major changes at the county’s Permit Assistance Center, where residents go to file for land-use permits.

“In the real world of non-bureaucrats, it’s known as the ‘Permit Resistance Center,’ ” he said. “And I would like to turn that around to where people feel they’re going to get a helping hand and some proper guidance toward doing what they think they need to do to enhance their life.”

Blake said his advice to his future seatmates is to be themselves. He said they should expect a big learning curve for their work on the board of health.

“We need to make sure we stay in tune with the health of the community and what that means in terms of programs and structure and outcomes that people need, from kids to women to men’s health,” Blake said. “All of those things that incorporate social services.”

He said he thinks the new commissioners will work together well because they won’t feel obligated to tow a party line.

“Eighty percent of what we do amongst the community is not even attributed to a political party,” Blake said.

And like all elected boards, sometimes they’ll disagree.

“That’s where we just have to come together at the table and talk things through,” Blake said.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton

If you go

When: Thurston County Commissioner-elect Gary Edwards and Commissioner-elect John Hutchings will be sworn into office with other newly elected county officials at 2 p.m. Dec. 28.

Where: The public ceremony will be at the Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia.