Where accountability is lacking

To listen to Republicans in the Legislature, there’s an accountability problem in state government.

It’s why majority Republicans and the one Democrat who caucuses with them ousted Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson on Friday by voting to reject her nomination for the post that she has held for three years. And it’s why Dan Pacholke, secretary of the Department of Corrections, sensing he might be next, resigned his post a day later. Pacholke was appointed to his office in October when Gov. Jay Inslee asked him to delay his retirement from the agency he had served for 33 years.

“I hope it helps meet your need for blood,” Pacholke wrote to a Republican senator, The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reported Saturday.

Dramatic, sure, but not without reason to Democrats in Olympia who believe Peterson’s firing and the reported recent badgering of Pacholke before a joint committee meeting have more to do with election year politics than fixing problems in state government.

Pacholke inherited the mess involving a software failure that led to the state releasing more than 3,200 prisoners earlier than intended since 2002 because they were given time off for good behavior they were ineligible for. It was a problem that the agency was alerted to in 2012 during his predecessor’s tenure.

Like Pacholke, Peterson also inherited a problem-plagued agency. Among Transportation’s higher-profile struggles were delays on the Highway 520 floating bridge, the oft-stalled Highway 99 tunneling project in Seattle and most recently the high-occupancy toll lanes on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue.

Only the I-405 toll lane delays occurred on Peterson’s watch, but the lanes were a project supported by Democrats and Republicans when pitched in 2011. Peterson’s department moved to fix problems with traffic delays after the lanes were first added late last year. Bus commuters and drivers were seeing shorter commutes in the morning, but drivers in northbound lanes are delayed near I-405’s bottleneck at Bothell during the evening commute. The construction of a direct-access interchange in Bothell might have solved the issue, but legislators didn’t include the funding in the transportation package passed last year.

What Peterson was responsible for was the quick response of her agency to restore two vital transportation links following the 2014 Oso landslide to rebuild Highway 530 and the replacement of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River after a over-height truck caused its collapse in 2013.

Fishing for a reason to dismiss her, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, went as far as calling Peterson “a racist” because the state Civil Rights Coalition sent a letter to the speaker of the House regarding concerns over agency policies on contracting with minority-owned businesses. That’s a long distance to travel even when you’re talking about transportation. Schoesler didn’t apologize but later said he regretted what he had said.

As well, Peterson was dismissed without being given an opportunity to defend her record, nor was she given the chance to resign or withdraw her nomination.

The high-profile dismissal could reflect poorly on the stability of the state’s transportation department and its projects, including the $16 billion package that Peterson help the Legislature assemble last year. The state is preparing to seek bonds to cover the first projects in that package, and the turmoil could be seen as a problem by investment firms and could result in higher interest costs for the state.

Including the departure of Kevin Quigley, secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services, itself in the process of reforms, the state’s three largest agencies will be left with interim chiefs for months. Finding permanent replacements may have to wait until after the November election. Even then the ranks of qualified applicants may be thinned by a reluctance to deal with the current turmoil here.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, made clear his intentions in a tweet after Peterson’s firing: “Note to other Inslee Appointees: Shape up, Do your job. Serve the people w/accountability. Or more heads are going to roll.”

Recall that the state Senate’s current plans would give itself two more years to fix funding of basic education for K-12 schools and end the reliance on local school levies. And remember the $100,000-a-day fine the state Supreme Court levied against the Legislature last year because it has failed to come up with an adequate plan.

That’s good advice, senator.

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