Oso mudslide commission is off to a slow start

Establishing a commission to examine the causes and consequences of the Oso mudslide is taking longer than Snohomish County Executive John Lovick and Gov. Jay Inslee imagined.

In the six-plus weeks since Lovick announced the joint effort, they’ve mapped out a scope of work but have not figured out how much to spend getting it done. The price tag could eclipse $1 million.

How to pay for it hasn’t been decided, though it’s a good bet the partner with the deeper pockets — the state — will cover the lion’s share.

Who will be on the panel, and who will run it, also isn’t clear.

Part of the difficulty encountered by these veteran Democratic politicians — and rookies in their current jobs — is a lack of precedent. There’s no template to follow.

They didn’t make it any easier by calling for a commission to look into what happened and what lessons can be learned.

Commissions are typically associated with high profile reviews following national calamities and tragedies. Some, like the Warren Commission and 9/11 Commission, are engrained in our memories and inscribed into school history texts.

Thus by pursuing a commission, Lovick and Inslee raised public expectations for an outcome grander than what a legislative task force or study group might produce.

David Postman, Inslee’s communications chief, is one of a tiny number of advisors involved in setting up the joint undertaking.

He said it will be an independent commission to ensure people who have questions feel they are getting complete and truthful answers.

Inslee and Lovick will “weigh in” but not handpick the chairman, he said. Neither he nor Lovick offered any names of those under consideration to either serve on or lead the panel.

The commission is likely to consider the history of the area before the March 22 mudslide, the causes of the slide and the response by emergency workers, volunteers and residents, Postman said. It also will review regulatory policies and recommend changes, he said.

How deeply the commission will probe for a cause is not chiseled into stone.

Postman said this week they want hydrology and geology experts involved in the review and investigation. However, Inslee told The Herald last month he didn’t think the panel would carry out a who-knew-what-when brand of inquiry.

As details get hashed out, the two political leaders may want to seek out former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton for advice, inasmuch as he served on the commission established after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Citing that experience, Gorton suggested a commission should focus on getting the history right and not play the blame game. Set out what happened in the past and, based on what happened, determine what improvements might work in the future, he said.

“You don’t say someone is at fault. You don’t express opinions in a (final) commission report,” he said. Lay out the facts and let the public interpret them, he said.

Another piece of advice: the panel should be made of an even number of people to encourage collaboration and prevent breakdowns along political lines.

And, he said, find trustworthy and respected members of the community to serve. They will be better able to reach unanimity and that will enhance the credibility of the final product, he said.

Gorton’s ideas “make sense,” Lovick said.

“We need to know the history. We need to know the cause,” he said.

Though it’s taken longer to launch than anticipated, the community isn’t pressing him on it yet, he said.

“I don’t feel pressure but we need to get started,” he said. “We need to get answers.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com/thepetridish. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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