Objectivity and thoroughness must define the commission examining the March 22 Oso mudslide. The joint landslide commission announced by Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick in Everett on Friday meets that criteria.
“The commission will focus its work on identifying the most important recommendations that, if implemented today, would make all of us safer tomorrow,” Lovick said.
The 12-member commission’s executive director is business leader Kathy Lombardo, a trained geologist and former staffer with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The members themselves reflect a cross-section of relevant backgrounds and experiences, including the UW’s David Montgomery, who played an instrumental role in the recently released GEER report reviewing the slide’s geomorphology. Other commissioners include Renee Radcliff Sinclair, the respected former Republican state representative and Snohomish County planning commissioner and JoAnn Boggs, the president of the Washington State Emergency Management Association.
Enlisting the Ruckelshaus Center, a problem-solving institution run jointly by the UW and WSU, to facilitate the process, also is a promising sign.
The commissioners are at a remove from the recovery efforts and don’t hail from Darrington, Oso or Arlington, a burr for some concerned that will silence voices from the field. Prohibiting membership for those directly affected by the slide is the right decision to avoid any real or perceived conflict, but it puts the onus on commissioners to engage actively with the Darrington-Arlington community.
There are limits. The commission will be independent and insulated from turf-conscious lawmakers influencing outcomes. It also won’t determine liability, cause or fault or, per Inslee’s statement, “act as a substitute for the courts in any way.” That shouldn’t defang the commission or prevent specific recommendations on zoning and land use (just write gingerly, nettlesome attorneys notwithstanding).
In Washington, there’s no analogue for the Oso commission. Often commissions are vehicles to drop-kick thorny issues such as a state income tax (consider the Gates commission study on tax structure — intensely researched and moldering somewhere in an Olympia storage closet).
The acid test will be producing a thorough, comprehensible report (no small feat, shoehorning hearings, research and recommendations into a 90-day span).
To serve the public interest and to honor the dead, the commission’s report needs to be as bold and specific as it is unbiased.