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Why can't Snohomish County leaders get along?

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- In government or the corporate world, nothing fires up the adrenaline like emotional, high-stakes discussion.
The brain undergoes chemical changes. Name-calling starts. People say things they regret.
More importantly, nothing gets done.
That's how one of the authors of a New York Times bestselling book, "Crucial Conversations," interprets the latest spat over Snohomish County's budget.
"People get angry. When they're angry, strangely enough, even in conversation, the body is programmed to react as though you're being attacked by a woolly mammoth," Kerry Patterson said. "Under those circumstances you're dumbed down. That's the lizard brain. That brain does stupid things, it starts making accusations."
This week, County Executive Aaron Reardon and County Council Chairman Mike Cooper traded accusations of "playing politics" and "grandstanding" as they sized up a worsening budget situation.
On Tuesday, Cooper sent out an e-mail to the county's elected officials saying he was in "shock and awe" over Reardon's decision to exclude him from countywide finance meetings.
Cooper said Wednesday he was wasn't angry, just frustrated. He thinks that Reardon knew how severe the financial situation was two weeks ago but didn't share the information. As proof, he showed a March 3 e-mail inviting elected county leaders -- but no councilmen -- to meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. The day after sending those e-mail invitations, Reardon left for a 10-day trade mission to the United Arab Emirates.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the executive's office sent new revenue projections to the council and other elected officials. They estimate a $6.7 million revenue shortfall.
The projected deficit would mean trimming another 3 percent from the county's $206 million general fund. To balance the budget, county leaders almost certainly need to make painful decisions about layoffs and reducing service to taxpayers.
Councilman Brian Sullivan already is pursuing legislation to extend a countywide hiring freeze through the end of the year. The recent exchanges between Cooper and Reardon have saddened him, Sullivan said.
"This is not a playground," he said. "This is a sophisticated municipal organization that needs leadership."
Reardon said he was surprised by Cooper's criticism because he's tried to share budget information as soon as it was ready.
"There's complete transparency in this process," he said. "Everybody has the most up-to-date information."
Each councilman has scheduled one-on-one meetings Friday with the executive. Cooper said the 30-minute time slots are too short.
Both sides agreed the budget situation deserves a quick response. They disagree on whether that's being done.
"Our goal is to get our heads around these economic conditions as best as possible," Reardon said. "People need to take a deep breath and address the situation in a calm, mature and deliberative fashion."
He said meetings with elected department heads on Tuesday and Wednesday were productive, professional and free of political rhetoric.
For Cooper, things aren't moving fast enough.
"If the executive wanted to pursue this issue a little more strongly, he would show leadership and he would make proposals," he said, "not just hold meetings and make PowerPoints."
Cooper said the council and the county clerk's office showed leadership by having their staffs agree to taking unpaid days off, while negotiations between the executive's office and unions representing most county employees have yet to reach a deal.
This isn't the first public tit-for-tat between the executive and a council chairman. Last year, as they were hammering out the budget, then Chairman Dave Somers and Reardon were quick with complaints and insults.
Reardon and Cooper once considered themselves allies. They roomed together in Olympia when they both served in the state Legislature. They looked forward to working together after Cooper won his council seat in 2007, the same year Reardon won a second term.
"I'm quite frankly shocked that he would do business this way," Cooper said Wednesday.
Patterson, the author of the high-stakes-conversations book, also teaches organizational behavior at Brigham Young University.
He said scientists have observed the effects of adrenaline on decision-making through 3-D images of the brain. Adrenaline pushes people to make dumb decisions. It plays out the same way in the corporate world, too.
After training members of Fortune 500 companies through VitalSmarts, a company he co-owns with his fellow co-authors, he said they find a direct correlation between rational discussions -- where emotions are kept in check -- and achieving corporate goals.
He had some advice for county officials: Agree to act civilly, and avoid attacking each other publicly.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,
Story tags » County CouncilCounty executive

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