County faces stormy seas with new executive at the helm

  • By Jerry Cornfield and Noah Haglund Herald writers
  • Saturday, January 2, 2016 4:58pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

EVERETT — It’s a new year and another new executive is settling into office in Snohomish County.

Whether the arrival of Dave Somers ushers in an era of political stability, regional leadership and statewide influence for Snohomish County is one of the most intriguing questions for 2016.

Somers is the third executive in four years for Washington’s third most-populous county, now topping 750,000 people. He inherits a political body suffering from a series of self-inflicted wounds — some of which Somers helped deliver during in his tenure as a County Council member.

When he walks into the executive’s sixth-floor offices Monday, he’ll face pressing concerns such as a potential strike by more than half the county’s employees, a legal fight with the Tulalip Tribes that could siphon millions of dollars from the county treasury and a political scrap over whether light rail will stop near the Boeing plant as it inches its way toward downtown Everett.

In the coming months, county leaders need to figure out what to do about replacing an aging courthouse after they set aside plans for a new $162 million building in downtown Everett. In his new role, Somers will try to shepherd through any alternatives the County Council sends his way while mending relations with Everett leaders with whom his predecessor, John Lovick, publicly feuded.

With new responsibilities as a regional leader, Somers will have a leading role in charting a path for light rail to reach Everett.

He’ll occupy one of Snohomish County’s three seats on the Sound Transit Board of directors that is crafting a multibillion-dollar tax measure for the November ballot to cover another round of expansion. The delegation wants to make sure it pays for bringing light rail to Everett by way of the industrial area around Paine Field and the Boeing Co. plant, though it may require fending off forces wanting new projects in King County.

But Somers’ biggest tests early on — the ones that will establish his style and earn him a reputation for better or worse — will have little to do with policy.

Fences need mending with some members of the Democratic Party who are peeved at Somers for challenging Lovick, also a Democrat. Relations need repairing with union leaders who backed Lovick and are now negotiating a new contract with the county.

And Somers is going to have to make peace with two County Council members, Brian Sullivan and Stephanie Wright, to avoid getting mired in the type of continuous conflict that has consumed those governing the county the past few years.

Somers led a 3-2 council majority that often butted heads with Sullivan, Wright and Lovick on the courthouse replacement project, the 2015 budget and pay raises for some executive office managers.

Remember Sullivan’s missive in December 2014 accusing Somers, then Council chairman, of “character assassination” and blaming him for contributing to a rancorous atmosphere among the county’s elected leaders?

It’s going to be critical for Somers to avoid pitfalls of the past if he hopes to achieve much in the future.

And filling his seat is bound to change the political dynamic in a way that will help.

State Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, is favored to get the County Council appointment to fill Somers’ vacant council seat. A Democratic Party stalwart, Dunshee’s selection would likely tip the balance toward Democratic council members Brian Sullivan and Stephanie Wright, who were Lovick allies.

But Somers and Dunshee are longtime friends, which should keep things calm for awhile and may precipitate better relations between all parties.

Meanwhile, Guy Palumbo, chairman of the county Planning Commission and a county fire commissioner, wants the appointment too. He’s working tirelessly to win enough support from the Democratic precinct committee officers to be the top nominee for the job.

In the meantime, look for Somers to nurture his ties with Republicans who backed his campaign. Such cross-party goodwill could strengthen his ability to govern, especially if disappointed Lovick supporters in the Democratic Party and labor unions are interested in settling political scores.

Amid Somers’ ascension and the council makeover, the county charter is up for its once-a-decade review. That could thrust big changes onto the November ballot.

A 15-member commission could propose enlarging the County Council from five seats to seven and making those and the executive’s jobs nonpartisan. Any revisions would need voter approval.

Meanwhile, if Dunshee gets the county job, the battle for his 44th Legislative District seat is going to attract attention statewide. That’s because the GOP needs to pick up two seats to be the majority in the House of Representatives and this is a district which historically elects members from both parties.

Next fall’s election will be a busy one with every state House seat and about half the Senate seats up for grabs.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee will try to win a second term and extend his party’s hold on the office into a fifth consecutive decade. Republican Bill Bryant stands in his way.

And Snohomish County voters will be a critical bloc for those looking to pass ballot measures targeting pollution-causing carbon emissions and hiking the minimum wage.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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