Snohomish County Councilmembers defend the value of planned travel

EVERETT — A visit to Chile’s Casablanca Valley wine region, then a late-afternoon siesta. A tour of the late Nobel Prize- winning poet Pablo Neruda’s home. Quality time in the port city of Valparaiso and the metropolis of Santiago.

Sound like a dream South American vacation? No, this is work.

It’s a week-long trip Snohomish County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan plans to take in April as part of a delegation of political and business leaders from the Puget Sound region.

Sullivan’s participation will cost county taxpayers nearly $7,400. Last week, the lawmaker didn’t hesitate to explain why he believes it will give the public a good return on investment.

“It’s a study mission to develop relationships for future trade,” he said.

Washington gets much of its winter produce from Chile and “they buy our airplanes,” Sullivan added.

Sullivan isn’t the only County Council member scheduled to visit a distant locale on public business in the months ahead. Councilwoman Stephanie Wright has been cleared for an approximately $5,900 trip to China in March as part of a mission focused on clean technology. Last year, Councilman Dave Somers visited England and Scotland for a trip with sessions on higher education and biotech at a cost of about $7,000.

The Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle arranged the trips. Local governments, including Snohomish County, Everett and the Port of Everett, are members of the trade group along with union leaders and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

While County Council members have been happy to discuss their overseas trips, foreign travel has been a sore point of late in county government.

The Washington State Patrol since late October has been investigating how County Executive Aaron Reardon used public funds during county business travel out of state.

In June, the state’s Public Disclosure Commission issued Reardon a $750 fine for failing to properly disclose who paid for out-of-town travel, including a 2009 Trade Development Alliance trip to the United Arab Emirates. The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce paid nearly $8,000 for Reardon’s expenses on the Middle East trip, which he co-led. The PDC cleared Reardon of any deliberate wrongdoing.

That trip, and another one to Washington, D.C., should have been included in personal financial disclosure forms —F1s— that Reardon and other elected officials must turn in every year, the commission found. Expenses paid by outside groups need to be listed, though those covered by the government agency elected officials represent do not.

Reardon spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said no one from the executive’s office plans to join in the upcoming China or Chile trips.

State political leaders often remind people that Washington is the most trade-dependent U.S. state, with more exports per capita than anywhere else. Four percent of Washington companies are involved in shipping goods overseas, compared to a national average of 1 percent. One in three jobs in Washington state is tied to trade, either directly or indirectly.

By dollar value, China in 2011 received more exports from Washington ports than any other country —more than $10 billion. That’s according to U.S. Census data provided by the state. By contrast, Chile was 26th on the list, receiving $577 million in exports from Washington.

The top goods headed to China in 2011 were airplanes and airplane parts, oil-producing seeds and wood products. For Chile, it was fuels, cereals and electric machinery. In the past, Washington aerospace manufacturers also have made large shipments to Chile.

“If you look at where investment is happening around the world, it isn’t just Asia, it’s South America as well,” said Councilman John Koster, who has participated in past overseas missions. “Technology, Boeing aircraft, the list goes on and on.”

Koster, the council’s only Republican, is often the first to raise objections about spending priorities. Yet he said the study missions can provide good opportunities, to scope out potential trade partners and competitors. It’s instructive for learning how to educate the workforce as well.

“The other part is developing the relationships,” Koster said. “A lot of times, it’s hard to draw a connection between those trade trips and particular business ventures that might result from them in the future, but they’re beneficial.”

Typically, council members rotate turns taking the trips. Sullivan, whose second term in office began this year, said he took no taxpayer-supported foreign trips during his first four-year term.

Sullivan’s Chilean visit, of course, involves more than wine and poetry.

He’s apt to get a close-up look at operations in Chile’s main port in Valparaiso and the chance to hobnob with Chilean chamber-of-commerce types. There’s a discussion about developing Chile’s cruise-ship industry. There’s also a slot on earthquake-preparedness, relevant in a country that experienced a 7.1-magnitude temblor in 2011 and another of 8.8 in 2010.

“It’s a whirlwind,” Sullivan said.

Wright’s upcoming China trip is billed by the trade alliance as a chance to “explore economic conditions and market opportunities in clean tech and renewable energy.” It includes meetings in the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuxi with company principals, government officials and investors in these sectors.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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