Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Ex-WSP Trooper To Pay $60K For Alleged Pension Scam

by January 17th, 2014

Several years after the allegations prompted headlines, and more than a year after he settled a related misdemeanor case for official misconduct in King County Superior Court, a former Washington State Trooper who allegedly gamed his state pension payout through misclassifying overtime hours he worked in 2010 and 2011 has quietly settled an ongoing state ethics probe by agreeing with his signature to pay a $60,000 fine, while admitting no guilt. The action came in an administrative determination known as a “stipulation” approved this week by the Washington State Executive Ethics Board, with ex-WSP Lieutenant William Blythe Gardiner, now 52. Public records show his last known voter registration address is in Sammamish.

Ds, Rs Push House Bill For Govt. Meeting Agendas Online

by January 15th, 2014

Taking a gentle approach to the often-contentious annual legislative battle in Olympia over local government transparency, a broad bi-partisan coalition of 41 State House members have signed on as sponsors of a measure to require all but the smallest government bodies to post their regular meeting agendas online at least 24 hours in advance. With sponsors including Seattle Democrats and Eastern Washington Republicans, House Bill 2105 got its first hearing yesterday in the chamber’s Government Operations and Elections Committee. The state’s Open Public Records Act lays out rules and responsibilities for making and complying with public document and data requests. The companion Open Public Meetings Act among other things says governments “shall provide the time for holding regular meetings” as determined in its laws or rules, but has no actual requirement agendas be posted, or posted online.

Prime sponsor Brad Hawkins (R-12, Wenatchee) told the committee the proposed legislation was “a modest first step at updating the Open Public Meetings Act to reflect our online society.” The Act “only requires public agencies with governing bodies to issue notice” of meetings, “but it does not require them to post agendas. In the interest of transparency in government, posting agendas is a good practice.” A co-lead sponsor is State Rep. Steve Berguist (D-11, South Seattle/Tukwila/Renton).

Bill Will, the Executive Director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, also testified in support of HB 2105, saying that posting meeting agendas online is “a common courtesy, a lot of government agencies are already doing this, and if this is a gentle nudge in the direction for everyone to do it, I think it’s a good thing.”

Victoria Lincoln, representing the Association of Washington Cities, said she signed in as “neutral” on the bill, and wants to learn more about penalties for non-compliance, and what compliance would entail for staffers.

Included under the bill’s requirements would be city and county councils, school districts, a wide range of other local and regional government bodies, and “any state board, commission, department, education institution” that has a governing body. The proposed law would not erase the existing requirement under OPMA that such public bodies provide advance notice, separately, of their meeting dates, times and places.

As our own September 2012 resource guide to online meeting agendas in Washington showed, practices vary widely across the state. Some local and regional governments not only post their agendas online, but also include item-by-item links to the agenda items. This is the one part of a robust approach to voluntary online government transparency; another is providing current and historical key performance data in structured formats such as Excel and CSV.

Other government bodies in Washington don’t bake meeting document links directly into their online agendas but do augment them with bulky .pdf files of the whole meeting’s document packet. Others simply meet the intent of HB 2015 by posting an agenda online with no accompanying meeting packet online or embedded document links.

Another category of Washington governments have web sites but post no agendas; these are the ones who would be targeted for compliance under HB 2105, unless they met the bill’s exemption threshold of having full-time staffs of five or fewer employees. Governments with no web sites would be exempt.

One additional testifier at Tuesday’s committee hearing, Arthur West of Olympia, suggested that some small cities, school districts or other bodies which could have to comply under the new law might instead try to game the exemption by making technical adjustments to lower their FTE level to five or less, and that therefore some reasonable population level for affected jurisdictions, based on the latest U.S. Census data, should be substituted as a yardstick for granting exemptions.

In the legislature in recent years cities, led by the AWC, have voiced concerns and advanced bills to regulate what they see as sometimes burdensome public records requests; and have proposed some requesters be required to pay for related staff time, prompting sharp rebuttals from records requesters and their allies. Other disputes have arisen around proposed and adopted exemptions to the Public Records Act. Voluntary online disclosure hasn’t come up much as a legislative topic, until now.

The 2014 legislative calendar hasn’t been posted yet but typically in a session starting in January, bills must pass through their originating committee with a simple majority by the end of the third week in February in order to be eligible for further consideration and an eventual floor vote. For any bill to become law it must be passed by both the State House and the Senate. If differing versions of a bill are passed in each chamber, that can be resolved in various ways including in conference committee.

Video of testimony to the House Gov Ops Committee yesterday on HB 2105 is below via TVW.

RELATED: HB 2105 committee staff bill analysis; HB 2105 Bill Summary Page.

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News. Donate; subscribe (free)/volunteer.

WSDOT: Freight Rail Fixes Are Key, But Funding Is Iffy

by January 13th, 2014

Freight rail can continue to be a carbon-conserving boon to the environment and economy in Washington state versus higher-polluting trucked freight, and will benefit from at least $419 million in publicly-sourced improvements and repairs through 32 completed projects by 2018. But at least another $1.5 billion in identified freight rail improvements is needed by 2030 in the state, and likely more, with funding sources currently unclear.

Meanwhile, the main intercity passenger rail route serving Washington, the Amtrak Cascades train connecting Seattle to Vancouver B.C. and Portland, will see $744 million in investment by 2018, mainly from federal stimulus money for so-called “high-speed rail.” Overall, the state wants $6.7 billion for Cascades improvements by 2030 although the return on investment is far less evident than for the envisioned freight rail spending. These are among the key takeaways from 492 pages of information in nine newly-updated ‘technical notes” to the statewide rail plan. That plan is now being finalized by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The final version is expected to be online by month’s end but not necessarily with the technical notes, which currently are provided only to requesters.

State Parks Repair Backlog $463M; Current Funding Scant

by December 30th, 2013

Washington State Parks have a backlog of deferred maintenance projects valued at $463 million now, up from $373 million in 2001, according to a new report to the legislature from the state parks and recreation commission. Current legislative funding for the backlog is a scant $7 million. The news comes as the parks system continues to wrestle with tough new fiscal realities sure to require more reliance on outside revenue and far less from Olympia.

Report Accents Ups, Downs of WA’s Economic Climate

by December 23rd, 2013

Every year Washington’s economic data unit takes a good look at where the state ranks nationally on more than 40 key performance measures, and the latest report card came out late last week. It shows that in 2012 Washington had the cheapest business electricity in the nation, the third cleanest drinking water systems, was fifth best on research and development spending, remained third in foreign exports, and was in the top quintile on per capita visits to state parks and recreation areas. But our performance lagged on unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation costs, unemployment rate, condition of interstate highways, and college-going rates. We could also do better on air quality. Overall, our state leans more toward the second-tier of five, than first, the report suggests.

These are among the takeaways from the Washington State Economic Climate Study for 2013, issued December 20 by the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. The idea of digging into the data, says the council, is that business is responsible for increasing productivity, but government policies help set the table for success. The study includes several dozen 50-state rankings on core indicators drawn mainly from blue-chip federal government data sources for the most recent and the four preceding years, plus explanations of how the measures are calculated and why they matter. Following are some highlights.

Selected WA Rankings for the 50 states – Source: WA ERFC, Dec. 2013
’08 ’09 ’10 ’11 ’12 Ave.
Drinking Water 8 2 1 1 3 1
Elec. Prices – Cmmrcl./Indstrl. 5 1 1 2 1 2
Exports 3 2 3 3 3 3
Exports, No Jets 6 8 8 8 7 9
State Parks & Rec. Site Visits 5 5 5 7 8 5
Toxins Released 15 6 12 10 10 11
Air Quality 1 23 23 25 22 22
College-Going – 2 & 4-yr. schools 24 24 27 28 30 28
Unemp. Rate 25 32 35 35 33 33
Unemp. Costs 44 42 46 39 28 42

Some Strong Points
Blessed with abundant hydropower, Washington’s weighted average industrial and commercial price of electricity per kilowatt hour in 2012 was 6.17 cents, the lowest in the nation. Idaho was next lowest at 6.27 cents. At the opposite end of the scale, highest prices after Hawaii and Alaska were in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and California. It was the third of the last five years that Washington had the lowest cost.

Washington in 2012 also held its rank as third greatest exporter in the U.S. measured in export dollar value as a percent of state personal income; bested only by Louisiana and Texas. Using that same yardstick but filtering out transportation equipment including Boeing foreign jet deliveries, the state ranked seventh in exports last year behind Louisiana, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Vermont and Alaska. The export data only includes trade in goods that are physically shipped, ruling out some software exports including most by Microsoft.

Clean Drinking Water
The state last year also ranked third lowest of 50 in percent of its population – just one-fifth of one percent – that was served by drinking water systems which were cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, either for exceeding maximum allowed levels of microbial, chemical or radiological contaminants under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act; or for violations of prescribed drinking water treatment methods. Only New Hampshire and Hawaii ranked better in 2012 and Washington is number one on the measure over the last five years combined, improving markedly since 2008 when it was just eighth best, according to the ERFC 2013 report.

Per Capita R & D Spending
Powered more by the private sector than government, Washington was fifth nationally in 2012 in total per capita research and development spending, exceeded only by Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Delaware. Washington’s five-year average rank is fifth.

State Parks Visits
The per capita rate of visits to state parks and state recreation sites in 2012 was far and away the highest in Oregon, followed by South Dakota, Hawaii, Alaska, Nebraska, Wyoming and Washington. The measure is based on total state parks and rec site visits including by tourists, versus the state’s population. Washington’s running five-year national rank is fifth.

Weak Spots
But though Washington did well in some areas, it has room to improve its competitive standing in others, according to the Council’s new report.

Challenges include unemployment insurance costs, worker’s compensation costs, and unemployment rate.

Some High Costs of Doing Business; Plus High Unemployment
Washington slid in 2012 to 38th from 17th in 2008 in controlling the dollar amount of worker’s compensation costs per $100 of payroll. Over the last five years its average ranking is 20th.

It is improving somewhat in unemployment insurance cost contributions collected from employers as a percent of total wages of covered employees, from 44th best in 2008 to 28th best in 2012 but its five-year average ranking is still 42nd.

Washington’s unemployment rate of 8.2 percent in 2012 was only 33rd best in the U.S., the same as its five-year average ranking in that measure.

Hurting Interstates
Our interstate highways are hurting, at least relatively. According to the new ERFC report, nearly seven percent of Washington interstate highway miles were in poor condition in 2011, the most recent year for which data were available. This puts the Evergreen State 44th of 50, a marked drop from the next most recent annual measurement in 2009 when it was 19th.

Not Competitive in College Enrollment
The state’s combined participation rate in two- and four-year colleges was another weak spot. Nationally, 6.4 percent of the population aged 18 and over is enrolled in two- or four-year colleges, versus 6 percent in Washington last year. That put the state 30th of 50, with a five-year average ranking of 28th.

Middling air quality
On air quality we ranked 22nd in 2012. The measure was percent of state population living in so-called “non-attainment areas” where the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards aren’t met. Metropolitan regions must for three years running meet NAAQS benchmarks on carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in order to avoid being classified as “non-attainment” areas. The state ranked first in 2008 but in every year since has hovered between 22nd and 25th.

Overall, the ERFC report suggests Washington comes out in the wash looking pretty much like a second-tier state, but that’s out of five tiers, or quintiles which divide the 50 states on individual and aggregate performance metrics. Washington’s five-year average combined ranking is 18th of 50 states in 16 “innovation driver metrics” in contrast to a new report from Bloomberg News based on seven metrics and one year that ranks Washington first in innovation.

The state ERFC report puts Washington ninth of 50 over five years, or first tier, in five “business performance” measures; but 21st, or high in the third tier, over five years on seven economic growth and competitiveness indicators. On 10 combined quality of life measures over five years, Washington ranked 16th, or second tier. A handful of measures in the report were not for 50 states, but major metro regions instead.

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News. Donate; subscribe (free)/volunteer.

WSDOT Report Muses on Private Transport Partners

by December 11th, 2013

A Toll Division Operational Review by the Washington State Department of Transportation released recently raises the idea of a state-regulated but privately funded and managed public utility that in theory could replace WSDOT so road projects can be financed more easily through means including bond sales not subject to legislatively-imposed limits on state government. Yet the notion is clearly less about action soon on any sort of deep structural change. It seems more intended to subtly prod a legislature slow to address systemic barriers to the current and quite arguably failing per-gallon gas-tax-based transportation funding model.

WA Transit Agencies Lag on Fare-box Recovery Ratios

by December 9th, 2013

Washington state public transit agencies in 2012 badly lagged the national average in paying their own way for operating costs. Reports from the Washington State Department of Transportation and the National Transit Database show respectively that the 30 Evergreen State public transit agencies received just 13.6 percent of their operating revenues from fare payments versus an aggregate of 33 percent for all 824 transit agencies reporting nationwide. However, in Washington, transit system van pools had a remarkably strong financial performance, earning a full four-fifths of operating costs from riders.

U.S. Fed: Seattle a Gentrification Hub – And That’s Good

by December 4th, 2013

Could much-maligned “gentrification” actually be a rising tide that lifts all boats economically, including in Seattle? A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland suggests so. It says that out of the 55 largest cities in the U.S. in 2000, Seattle ranks second in the percent of central city, low-priced-housing Census tracts that based on data from the 2005 to 2009 American Community Survey subsequently gentrified, or moved overall into the top half of median home price in the broader metro area. Moreover, says the study, gentrification is associated with higher credit scores for residents whether they own their homes or not, and even if they move elsewhere.