Big challenges await next King County Executive

This November, voters in King County have a very important choice to make: who should succeed Ron Sims as the Executive of one of the largest counties in the United States.

Sims, 60, had until recently been at the helm of King County since 1997. He was tapped by President Barack Obama in February to serve as the Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, confirmed by the U.S. Senate on May 6, and sworn in two days later.

Sims’ departure has created perhaps the most intriguing race for Executive in King County’s history, featuring – to date – four elected Democrats (Larry Phillips, Dow Constantine, Fred Jarrett, Ross Hunter), a former local television anchor (Republican Susan Hutchinson), and a Snoqulamie public works project manager (Alan Lobdell).

The field will be complete on the evening of June 5 with the close of the filing period in King County.

Only two candidates will survive our state’s poorly designed “Top Two” primary (which, as the name implies, allows just two candidates to advance onwards to November, thereby reducing choices for voters in the election with the highest turnout).

The challenges that face the winner after his or her victory this fall are daunting.

Consider the county’s chronic budget problem. Right wing initiatives and new development had already choked revenue and increased costs years before the economy started deteriorating. King County needs an executive who will push the Legislature to tackle tax reform (an issue that many lawmakers seem averse to working on, let alone discussing) and find ways to deliver county services more effectively, so we can get the maximum value for our dollars.

Sims’ successor must also be involved in helping Sound Transit keep its promises to voters. Last autumn, residents in urban King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties approved new revenue to fund an expansion of light rail north through the county line, east to Redmond, and south to Federal Way. Light rail is critical to our county’s future because it will give commuters a reliable way to get to work, taking cars off the road and improving everyone’s travel time. Sound Transit, which had a rocky start, is now one of the best managed agencies in the state. It needs the full support of King County’s next executive to continue moving forward.

Additionally, King County needs a leader who will be responsive to the concerns of its rural residents. The county’s permitting process, for example, is widely perceived as too slow and inefficient. The Critical Areas Ordinance developed and defended by the Sims administration is still seen by many as lacking flexibility. And the county continues to be responsible for a large swath of unincorporated urban areas, making it difficult for the county to focus resources on providing services for rural residents.

These problems can be solved through reform, adjustment, and annexation, but it won’t be easy.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people interested in the job.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of moderating a forum between the four elected Democrats who hope to succeed Sims. Each brought their own perspective to the forum, reflected in their answers to the wide variety of questions the audience came up with.

I was surprised at how focused the audience was on the candidates during the discussion. Normally, at a campaign event like that, there’s discernible background noise, but I didn’t notice any, even though the room was packed.

That to me signifies that people care about what happens in this race. And they should: this is a big decision. Whoever we choose to lead our county will have to navigate it safely through awfully tough times. Our quality of life rests on their success; we owe it to ourselves to make a wise selection.

If you haven’t had the chance to hear the candidates speak yet, I encourage you to plan to attend the Eastside King County Executive Community Forum on June 25 at Twin Falls Middle School. Contact the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce for more information.

Andrew Villeneuve is a lifelong Eastside resident and founder of NPI: Revolutionizing Grassroots Politics at www.nwprogressive.org.


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