Following the death of William Ruckelshaus on Thanksgiving Day at 87 at his Medina home, news reports rightly focused on his legacy in guiding the federal Environmental Protection Agency in its first years in the 1970s, a return in the 1980s to save the agency from mismanagement and the pivotal part he played in the “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973 that months later would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Only deeper into that coverage might you have read a few paragraphs about Ruckelshaus’ later work in the Hoosier’s adopted state of Washington with several corporate and nonprofit boards in the Northwest; his leadership, starting in 2007, when he was appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to lead a new state agency, the Puget Sound Partnership, that focused his environmental leadership on protection of the sound; and his work to foster collaborative problem-solving through the organization that bears his name, the William D. Ruckelshaus Center.
The other Washington: His accomplishments in Washington, D.C., might have seemed enough for one lifetime.
Following work in the Nixon administration’s Justice Department, Ruckelshaus was appointed to lead the newly created EPA, folding several environmental offices into a single agency that fostered the passage of anti-pollution laws, effective auto emission standards, protection of the bald eagle and other endangered species and the ban of the toxic pesticide DDT.
Having earned the nickname “Mr. Clean” at the EPA, the Nixon administration — already besieged by allegations that it had obstructed an investigation of the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices — Ruckelshaus was first made acting director of the FBI, then deputy attorney general.
Ruckelshaus didn’t last long at that position. Ordered by President Nixon to fire Archibald Cox, a Harvard law professor hired to investigate the break-in, Ruckelshaus refused the president’s order, then resigned. His resignation — and Cox’s firing — helped hasten the end for Nixon, who left office in August 1974.
Nearly a decade later, the reputation earned during those consequential events led President Ronald Reagan to bring him back to the EPA to bolster an agency that had been drained by budget and staff cuts and demoralized by Congress’ loss of confidence in its director.
This Washington: To our lasting benefit, Ruckelshaus brought his reputation and mastery of problem solving to the Northwest, Washington state and to Snohomish County and its communities, from Oso to Everett.
Ruckelshaus also brought with him the realization that — even considering his record of success — government and its officials had their limits.
“Bill recognized that there are some things that government can’t get its arms around,” said Bob Drewel, the former Snohomish County executive and a friend of Ruckelshaus, who earlier this year succeeded the founder as chairman of the center’s advisory board.
“Bill was a strong believer in this country and a strong believer in democracy. His attention to how government can work or not work caused him to start this center,” Drewel said last week in an interview.
The Ruckelshaus Center, established in 2004, assists parties — sometimes on “opposite sides of the stick,” Drewel said — that are involved in complex public policy challenges.
Rather than a top-down approach to addressing issues, said Kevin Harris, a senior facilitator with the center, Ruckelshaus sought to build a process that brought together industry, environmentalists, politicians, tribal and other leaders to collaboratively solve challenging problems. That vision led to the center’s creation, a joint effort of the state’s two universities, specifically Washington State University’s WSU Extension and the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance.
Ruckelshaus knew “if they could have open discussions and build trust,” Harris said, “there would be a much better chance for durable solutions.”
The center’s work: Since starting with environmental and natural resource issues, the center’s work has expanded to encompass a range of public policy, including community and economic development, land use, transportation, agriculture, health care, education, emergency management and governance at the federal, state, local and tribal levels.
Among current state-wide projects are criminal sentencing reform, a review of the state’s Growth Management Act, aviation biofuels and a review and assessment of natural disaster threats and regional coordination.
Among its past and current work in Snohomish County, the center:
Facilitated the Joint SR 530 Landslide Commission that made recommendations to improve emergency communication and response, research landslide threats and assist the Stillaguamish Valley community following the Oso landslide in 2014 that killed 43 people.
Reviewed in 2016 the governance of the Snohomish Health District, that led to reforms that improved engagement and streamlined the district board’s decision-making process.
Recently issued a report that assesses the City of Everett’s pilot CHART program — the Chronic Utilizer Alternative Response Team — developed to address how the city responds to those affected by homelessness, addiction, mental health and other issues and evaluate how those services are being delivered. The process, Harris said, included some 32 interviews with 25 agencies, including police, emergency aid, hospital, social service, city government and others, seeking improvements and recommendations that can best direct resources for the work and lead to the program’s adoption elsewhere.
More than just putting his name on the center, Ruckelshaus actively advised center staff as work progressed on each effort. He stepped down to emeritus status only this spring, Drewel said. But his commitment to public service remained until the end, as did his humility and humor.
Deserving of honor: Shortly before his death, at a lunch with Drewel, Ruckelshaus recalled his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015: “I don’t deserve this, but I’m not giving it back,” Ruckelshaus said he told the president.
Ruckelshaus, of course, deserved the honor:
At a national level beginning nearly 50 years ago for bringing attention and leadership to environmental issues that still must be confronted today, and for providing a profile in courage as to how officials — and anyone — should conduct their responsibilities with purpose and integrity;
And closer to home, for bringing that same commitment and respect for gaining the public’s trust to focus on solving the problems we encounter in our daily lives.
“His legacy is just really deep because of his sense of character, integrity and respect for diverse opinion,” Harris said. “Personally, I think we’ll all be talking about him in the present tense for a long time.”