What happens in the courthouse...

Unless explicitly noted otherwise, this blog represents my own opinions, not those of any organization (like the Kittitas County Democratic Party) that I might be involved with.

Feel free to join the conversation: welcome aboard!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What has Obie Done as County Commissioner? What would I do?

The ebola virus. Obie had nothing to do with this, either.
At the last candidate forum, Obie said this about the Taylor Bridge Fire animal rescue operation at the fairgrounds: "All of the work was done by volunteers, but as a politician I get to take credit for it." He was serious, not making a joke.1

It was part of his introductory remarks, a chance for him to talk about what he did during four years as a commissioner. He also talked about the county's compliance with the Growth Management Act, and resolution of water problems.

Those things happened, but he couldn't mention a single example of his own leadership. 

Such a low threshold for claiming credit makes it difficult for those of us who are more modest, which is just about all of us.

Here is what I hope to say after four years as county commissioner: "I helped bring a new level of trust, transparency, and accountability to county government.

"I made sure our economic development efforts were as effective as possible, and ensured that we got value for the money we spent on economic development. I made the county more welcoming to new businesses. I helped the county respond effectively to changing economic conditions. I kept taxes as low as possible, but no lower.

"I helped citizens find effective ways to communicate with their county government, and I communicated effectively with them. Sometimes people got upset, but I helped them understand the reasons for my actions, even if we couldn't agree. 

"Lots of other good things happened that I wasn't directly responsible for, including continued progress on the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Plan. Important work was done by volunteers, and it made our communities stronger and safer."

That's what I hope to say, about things that I really did do and that needed doing. I won't need to take credit for what others did, because I will have actually accomplished things.

1It wasn't the first time he's said this kind of thing. It would be different if he was joking, but he wasn't. Here is a video of his opening remarks that night.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Treating jobs as an emergency

"Economic development: the use of public resources to stimulate private investment." 
-- TIP Strategies, Kittitas County Economic Plan, 2009

At candidate forums I have been talking about how we need to be treating the need for new jobs as an emergency. Briefly, here's why: of our top 5 employers in terms of payroll, 64% of the income is from taxpayer-funded sources. In particular, CWU is our top employer, paying an average salary of $40,000, and it is also the most threatened by budget cuts at the state level. Things are looking shaky for other employers, too. For example, Twin City Foods, a longtime source of family-wage-paying union jobs, has been reducing its processing tonnage for several years.

In this post, I'll write about some ideas for going after the jobs problem.2

In general I see revenue, capital, customers, and opportunities coming from the west -- the Puget Sound area, which some of us call "the coast" -- and competition coming from the east -- primarily Grant County.

Grant County has been eating our lunch in the economic development department. And we have been peeling and salting the hard boiled egg for them.

Meanwhile, we try to pretend the Seattle area doesn't exist, even though it's one of most prosperous areas in the country, and Kittitas County is the gateway to their only escape from traffic and grey skies to tourism and other activities.

We're also not using all of our geographic assets properly. Vantage, for example, has been hard hit (make that very, very hard hit) by the problems at Wanapum Dam, which is managed by the Grant County PUD, yet it is our only direct access to a big body of water for recreation. Our failure to act to help Vantage is one of those examples of letting Grant County dine at our expense, as boaters go across the Vantage Bridge to find places to launch. Vantage is important to all of us, not least because west-side visitors to Vantage can stop and spend money all the way across the county in both directions.3

More on Vantage in a soon-to-come blog post.

A 2009 economic study, commissioned by the Economic Development Group of Kittitas County, made a number of specific recommendations, some of which have been followed.4 The report was completed at the height of the Great Recession, and it would be a good idea to get an updated version. It should be possible to update it without hiring a consultant, and this would be a good opportunity for county commissioners to provide some leadership.

Now that compliance with the GMA is in place, and the water bank is filled, and the marijuana issue is almost put to rest, jobs need to a specific focus of the county commissioners' attention.5

1This report may be available on the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce's website, but the most promising link I could find turned out to be broken. If you would like a copy, let me know and I will e-mail you one.
2Here's a 2011 Daily Record Editorial about the need for more jobs.
3The Chamber of Commerce does have a beautiful web page about the Vantage area.
4You can find a 2009 Daily Record story about the report here.
5The county commissioners will probably point out that the work they have been doing has been about jobs, and to a certain extent that is of course true, but they have spent a lot of time distracted by things like the marijuana issue and the ground water situation. Both of these problems (more on water, more on marijuana) were self-inflicted, and both have occupied time that could have been better spent.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Marijuana Forum, October 22

As reported in this morning's Daily Record, I am organizing a community forum on marijuana in Kittitas County at 6:30 on Wednesday, October 22 at the Hal Holmes Center. Commissioner O'Brien can't attend due to a prior commitment, so I will not be treating this as a campaign event. I'll be treating it as an opportunity to learn, and I'll be trying to figure out how we got to the point that this issue is so divisive.

More on the forum in a moment, but first I want to note that I intentionally waited for the Daily Record to report on this event before I started promoting it on the Internet. (I would have involved the Northern Kittitas County Tribune, too, but it is a weekly and the timing didn't work out.) 

The Internet is good for some things, and newspapers are good for other things. The more local the issue, the bigger the difference and the more important newspapers become. 

A big problem with the Internet -- and I didn't invent this idea -- is that we tend to gravitate toward sites that agree with our own point of view. This leads to what is called a silo, or stovepipe, effect, where we are only exposed to ideas that we already agree with, at the very time when we need to hear other perspectives. There's a real cost to this problem, and I think the upset we're experiencing over marijuana are an example of it.

I am regularly surprised at how many people I meet who don't subscribe to any local newspaper. This is too bad, because communities need common sources of information, even -- or, especially -- if they don't agree with some of the points of view they see there. Common sources of information and other common experiences are what make communities exist in the first place.

I don't mean for this post to be all about newspapers, but suffice it to say that I wish everyone in the county subscribed to and read one or both of our local newspapers.

OK, more about the marijuana forum. It turns out that is easy and mostly free to stream events on the Internet these days.1 In keeping with my interest in openness, I will be streaming video of the forum on the Internet through YouTube.2 Here is a link, in case the one at the top of this post doesn't work, but I hope most people will come and participate, rather than stay home and just watch.

As the Daily Record article says, I hope we can have a civil exchange of information and that we can all learn from one another and try to see other points of view. I hope you'll come.

1Free and easy is a far cry from the $100,000 for two years quoted by Commissioner O'Brien as the cost of making commissioner meetings available to the public as video. (Link to an earlier post about this.) Of course, on the Internet free and easy sometimes turns out to be neither, but clearly the cost of making meetings available to citizens and journalists who can't make it to commissioner meetings is going to be far less than the commissioners seem to think it would cost.
2It took me about 45 minutes to go from being unaware that it was even possible for regular people to stream video on the internet, to figuring out how to set it up. It became possible on YouTube late last year.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Climate Change and Kittitas County

I remember the first modern scientific paper about climate change in the early '90s. In 2006, my partners and I started Central Washington Biodiesel, partly out of concern about climate change, and in 2011 I went to my first scientific conference about climate change. In 2012 I organized TEDxTheEvergreenStateCollege: Hello Climate Change. One talk from that event, Climate Change is Simple, by David Roberts, has a total of about 200,000 views on YouTube.

Also in about 2012, this video really grabbed my attention. It was put together by Richard Muller, previously a climate change skeptic. His organization, which has received Koch brothers funding in the past, is called Berkeley Earth.

I set this version so that it starts in about when I was conceived, for maximum effect.

I'm not an expert, but I have been paying attention to climate change for quite some time. The good news is that there is mostly good news when it comes to the effect of climate change in the Pacific Northwest region. The same is generally true for Kittitas County. There is a little not-so-good news, too, for our region. Unfortunately, the news for large parts of the planet is almost all bad, so I'm going to focus on Kittitas County and the PNW here.

In his TEDx talk, David Roberts covers the simpler, broader parts of climate change in about 17 minutes, but this is going to be a longish blog post about more local issues. Toward the bottom of the post, I'll write about some possible policy implications.

First, we need to mention that science is uncertain, and there's no way around it. There are many different levels of uncertainty. There's always a chance someone in the last stages of cancer could recover, or that what looks like a tumor on the first visit to a doctor turns out not to be a tumor. It is technically possible that climate change isn't really happening, but there is lots of evidence from many different sources that shows that it really is happening. Indeed, there is so much evidence that we should be behaving as if climate change is happening now.

Next, we need to talk about how weather and climate are not the same thing, and how there is a large amount of variability even over long periods. In this graph (also from the Berkeley Earth website), showing temperatures in our area since records began in about 1835, it appears that our average temperature has risen by about a degree and a half Celsius (about 2.7°F). But a recent paper provides a convincing argument that our local temperature increase is mostly due to normal regional variability, not anthropogenic (that is, human-caused) climate change. Put another way, in our area the effects of climate change so far have been smaller than the long-term variability of regional weather.

Make no mistake, on a global level anthropogenic climate change is just about as real a thing as we have in science, but warming happens at different rates in different places. Because we are right next to the eastern Pacific Ocean, where cold water comes to the surface from the deep ocean, our region is warming more slowly than other places.

As if all that wasn't confusing enough (the PNW has been warming, but not because of climate change; the rest of the world really is warming because of climate change), there's this past summer.

This map (from Cliff Mass's weather blog) shows the departure from normal of air temperatures across Washington during the summer of 2014. In Eastern Washington, temperatures averaged about 3.5°F above normal. It was a record-breaking summer, but it was mostly due to natural variability and only a little due to climate change.

The greatest impacts to agriculture will come from changes in water availability, largely because farmers are already used to dealing with significant weather variability.

In the Kittitas Valley, our irrigation season is extended as snowpack in the Cascades melts during the summer. That is expected to change as the climate continues to change. (The next three figures are from the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group 2013 State of Knowledge Report on climate change impacts in the Northwest. The pdf is available here.)
Areas that get their water from sources that are near the current snowline are the most sensitive to changes in average year-round temperature. That's because increases in temperature will raise the snowline above the mountain tops. That means our water supplies will be changing, and the effect is significant enough that the Yakima River Basin is specifically discussed in the Climate Impacts Group (CIG) report. These graphs follow the above figure in the CIG report. (Again, here's a link to the pdf of that report.)

The middle graph shows monthly changes in Yakima River flows at three points in the future. Notice that our current maximum flow happens in June and July. In the future, maximum flow is expected to occur in December-February, because precipitation that now falls in the mountains as snow will fall as mixed rain and snow and later as rain during the winter.

The predicted changes in our water supplies are due to predicted changes in temperature. What does the future hold for us temperature-wise?

This graph show the predictions of climate modeling for the Northwest (it's Figure ES-3 in the CIG report). It shows that our temperatures will likely rise by about 3.5 degrees by around 2050. As Cliff Mass points out, that's when the summer of 2014 will seem normal.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marijuana Forum Planned

From: verheys@hotmail.com
To: obie@writeme.com
Subject: Invitation: marijuana community forum
Date: Wed, 15 Oct 2014 12:24:49 -0700

Hi Obie,

I have just reserved the Teanaway Room at the Hal Holmes Center for a community forum on marijuana. The date is Wednesday, October 22. The event will start at 6:30.

After our candidates forum last week, I went to the Planning Commission meeting, just in time to hear the last of the citizens who had something to say about the marijuana issue. Although the chair was generous (perhaps more generous than he should have been) with time, it was clear that more people wished to speak than had the opportunity. 

I'd like to hear what everyone has to say, but I don't know if I'd be allowed to organize a meeting like this if I were elected, so it seems now is the time.

I know you are very busy with your duties, and that out-of-town travel is routine for you, so neither I nor anyone else will think less of you if you can't attend. If you are able to attend, you are welcome, and I will find a way to include you that is respectful and fair.

Best wishes,


> From: obie@writeme.com
> To: verheys@hotmail.com
> Subject: Re: Invitation: marijuana community forum
> Date: Thu, 16 Oct 2014 13:36:38 +0200
> Steve,
> I have a meeting in Cle Elum until 6 and then the Council of Governments that starts at 7 in South Cle Elum so I will not be available.
> Obie
> Sent using the mail.com iPhone App

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why you should vote for me and not that other guy

Ballots will start arriving in mailboxes around the county on Wednesday, October 15. Ballots can be returned at any time, and must be placed in drop boxes or postmarked by Tuesday, November 4.

I have been writing this blog since May of 2010, and I have covered just about everything one might want to know about where I stand on various matters. But that's a lot to read, so here is a quick guide to my thoughts on some key issues. If you're interested in something I don't cover here, just ask and I'll update this post. In the list below, look for footnotes that lead to background information.
  • Openness in county government: In the past years the county has received an unprecedented number of public document requests -- this indicates a serious level of mistrust of county government. In 2012, the county began requiring county employees to sign confidentiality statements, which was also unprecedented.0 Inexplicably, county commissioner meetings are not televised (or streamed, or available on the Internet in any way), unlike the city council and school board meetings of both Ellensburg and Cle Elum.0.1

  • Commissioner responsibilities: by law, commissioners are responsible for health and safety, capital projects, fiscal practices and policy, and economic development. Our commissioners have not been paying enough attention to economic development.

  • Jobs: we need to treat the need to grow more jobs as an emergency. Of our five largest sources of payroll, 64% are taxpayer funded.1 CWU is the largest employer (in terms of salary totals) in the county, and faces still more budget cuts next year.2

  • Business: the current county commissioners don't have any significant experience with business, let alone new businesses. I have extensive experience in business, especially with startup businesses.3 But the most important thing about businesses and county government is something everyone knows: businesses need a stable regulatory environment.4 Our commissioners have not been providing this.5 There is intense competition nationwide for new businesses, who often can choose to locate anywhere they like -- we need to step up our game.

  • Water: as I wrote back in 2010, the water situation did not need to become a problem, but it did. It may be fixed now, but that depends on who you ask. There are two key water issues these days:
    • the lease of water from Roslyn for Lower County rural home building, and 
    • the purchase of water for a county-run water bank that mostly benefits the Lower County. 
    The leasing of water to fill in the gap before the water bank water becomes available may be challenged in court. Because finally correcting the water situation is necessary to maintain compliance with state rules, it may be necessary to defend the county's approach, and I would support that defense if the Prosecuting Attorney's Office recommended it.6
    Following a motion by my opponent, the county unnecessarily paid about $51,000 per acre foot for one set of water rights, and bought others for as little as $13,000. It was very irresponsible to pay $51K for water rights; the fact that a well-known developer was selling the rights is fishy, at best.7

  • Illegal drugs: heroin is the drug we should be worrying about. There have been several heroin overdose deaths in the county in recent years. One overdose was two blocks from my house in Ellensburg.

  • Marijuana: marijuana is legal in Washington and Colorado, and it will soon be legal in a number of other states, including Oregon. As I wrote earlier, the marijuana industry could be good for Kittitas County, but only if it is handled correctly. Unfortunately, the county, led by Obie, has not handled it correctly.8

0In a newspaper article at the time, the commissioners excused this new requirement, saying some departments were already required to sign such statements. The existing departments were ones that normally deal with confidential information: the Prosecuting Attorney's Office and the Health Department. No good reason was given for expanding the requirement/
0.1I have written several times, most recently at this link, about the problem of inaccessible county commissioner meetings, which are a key cause of the current upset over marijuana businesses.
1I am slightly oversimplifying here: CWU's budget mostly comes from tuition. However, over the past 4 years, CWU's taxpayer-provided state funding has been cut by more than 50%.
2One in nine jobs in Kittitas County is at CWU. The average salary of the nearly 2200 jobs is about $40,000.
3I have been involved in three start-ups, two of them successful, an excellent record. My first company, Central Washington Biodiesel, is still operating, but I sold my interest in it in 2011. My second company, the Cascadia Carbon Institute, is active internationally. A third company, Bioalgene, failed to attract investors, but has a zombie web page.
4Fuel is a highly regulated industry, so my first business gave me considerable experience in dealing with regulations and regulatory agencies at the local, state, and federal levels.
5The marijuana industry is the latest example of the county providing unsettled a regulatory environment.
6The Prosecuting Attorney's Office acts as the legal advisor to the county commissioners.
7It turns one of the trickiest things about being in business is figuring out how to value things. One simple approach is to take the cost of leasing something (in this case, $500 per acre foot per year, from Roslyn) and multiply it by a time factor. Mortgages are often for 30 years, so that's a reasonable time factor. Multiplying $500 by 30 gives $15,000, not very different from the lower-priced water that was purchased by the county. The county could have -- Obie could have -- chosen to pay about this amount, and walked away from the $51,000 water. That's not what happened.
8For my earlier posts on this topic, see here, here, here, here, and here.

    Ballots can be returned at any time by US Mail or via a drop box (there are drop boxes at the Kittitas County Courthouse in Ellensburg, the Upper County Courthouse in Cle Elum, the Student Union Rec Center at CWU, and other locations.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Single Biggest Problem Facing Kittitas County

Above, a video I recorded during the League of Women Voters candidates forum to demonstrate how easy it is to do. Why aren't county commissioner meetings recorded and available on the Internet?

The biggest problem facing Kittitas County is poor communication between the Board of County Commissioners and the citizens and key industries and institutions in the county. The current upset about marijuana regulations is just a symptom of the larger problem of poor communication, and it's hard to escape the notion that the commissioners like it this way.1

At the League of Women Voters candidates forum last week I was surprised to hear Commissioner O'Brien say he couldn't think of anything more the county could be doing to improve communication. By law, he pointed out, all meetings and documents are available to the public.

Of course, virtually all commissioner meetings happen during the workday and in the Courthouse in Ellensburg. This makes it difficult for people with day jobs, and people who don't live in Ellensburg, to attend even occasional meetings, let alone a series of related meetings. Scheduling conflicts can also make press coverage difficult, even for important issues.

Ellensburg City Council, Ellensburg School Board, Cle Elum City Council, and Cle Elum-Roslyn School Board meetings are all video-recorded and rebroadcast, which helps explain why press coverage of these bodies is so much effective than coverage of county business.2

Doing the minimum required by law isn't much help when it comes to giving citizens real access to what the commissioners are up to, and in this day and age it's not acceptable.

As reported by the Daily Record last week, Commissioner O'Brien stated that it was too expensive to video record meetings (meetings are audio recorded, but are not, as far as I can tell, available without a trip to the Courthouse). He mentioned some numbers: the cameras in the Ellensburg City Council meeting room cost thousands of dollars each, and recording and storing county meetings would cost $100,000 for the first two years. "If you don't have the dollars, it doesn't make sense," he quipped.

A quick fact-check: try Googling "meeting video recording equipment" without the quotation marks. On my computer, the second hit is a memo from the City of North Bend, 80 miles west of Ellensburg. The memo reports a bid process that led to a system that had a one-time cost of about $20,000 for equipment and an annual cost of $15,000 to $20,000 for a vendor to handle the recordings. So, about half of Commissioner O'Brien's estimate, but then again the North Bend City Council probably spends less time meeting.

But here's an interesting thing: the memo was from 2005, five years before Mr. O'Brien took office. In the nine years since 2005, it seems reasonable to expect that costs have come down, and we intuitively know this is true. After all, the first iPhone didn't appear until 2007.

Then there's the question of how much it costs not to video record and broadcast county commissioner meetings.

In fact, this failure has cost us real money and heartache. This was evident at the Planning Commission meeting, where I went after the candidates forum. By that late in the evening the crowd had dwindled from hundreds of people to scores of people, most of them upset by the marijuana industry regulations. Might proper communication have saved many people a great deal of time?

It strikes me that the commissioners prefer the current situation, and to the extent they have researched options at all, they did not look very hard for affordable solutions. As with many things, there are costs for acting, and there are costs for not acting. I think the costs of not acting are higher.3

1In an earlier post I -- or, rather, Commissioner O'Brien himself -- mentioned why the commissioners might not want meetings televised: "When there's that close a scrutiny, things can change."
2I use the old-fashioned terms "televise" and "broadcast." These could easily be replaced with "stream on the Internet."
3For a perspective on costs, according to a watchdog group, the Armory remodel is more than 100% over budget, representing unexpected spending of about $1.5 million dollars.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Throw-back Thursday: the Daily Record's 2010 take on the commissioners race.

On October 28, 2010, less than a week before the election, the Ellensburg Daily Record ran an editorial about the race for county commissioner, which was an earlier version of this year's contest.

The editorial endorsed, in a way, Obie O'Brien, noting that "O'Brien would likely go along with the current board."

That was certainly the case once Mr. O'Brian got elected, and as a result the Board of County Commissioners got involved in a number of misadventures. It pursued the ill-advised Armory remodel project that is 200% over budget and unnecessarily paid $51,000 per acre foot in borrowed money to deposit water in the county-run water bank. Led by Obie, the commissioners approved, then botched, the marijuana policy roll-out, upsetting just about everyone.

Mr. O'Brien was directly responsible for the last two problems, and he's been struggling to fix the latest one by trying to modify the county code yet again in an effort to placate angry voters in an election year.

The editorial concluded that "O'Brien is the more comfortable choice," but it didn't work out that way.

To be fair, the editorial did acknowledge that there is value in "critical questioning and some level of dissension," which is what I would have brought to the board. Even though I'm pretty sure that, through critical question and, when necessary, dissension, I would have prevented any of those problems from happening if I had been elected in 2010, it's just as well that I wasn't elected then.

Why? Because I'm a much better candidate now.

Here are some of the ways in which I am a much better candidate: a series of experiences examples of leadership that are directly relevant to our situation in Kittitas County.

In the past few years I have been an officer in three different startup companies, two of which -- both in Kittitas County -- are still operating.1,2 I have continued my involvement in the community, leading a bipartisan inquiry into the long-running problem of the middle school in Ellensburg, and most recently as a member of the Team for a Common Vision, working on a solution to the same problem. While doing all this is I have helped guide an expansion of my family's farm following the death of my father.

These are all activities that have prepared me to address the most critical problem in Kittitas County: the need to attract and grow family-wage jobs.

It will be interesting to see what the Daily Record writes about the election this year. Mr. O'Brien has had a difficult term, while I have made good use of the time to become better able to serve Kittitas County at a very critical time.

1In the startup world, being successful in two out of three attempts is considered an extremely good record.
2The business that I am still involved with, the Cascadia Carbon Institute,  does international technical advising and consulting in the renewable energy and industrial chemical space.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What does a county commissioner do, anyway?

We all learned in school about the three branches of our government: executive, legislative, and judicial. It turns out that that structure applies at the federal and state levels, but at the county level, at least in Washington, the board of county commissioner is a combination of the executive and legislative branches.

That gives the commissioners significant responsibility in a job that can be very complex. To make matters more challenging, there are only three commissioners in the form specified by the Washington State Constitution.

Here are some areas in which a board of county commissioners must be -- or have the ability to quickly become -- well-informed:
  • labor relations
  • environmental regulations (state and federal)
  • land use and planning
  • public health
  • public safety
  • finance
  • contracts
  • human resources
  • personnel management
  • construction management
  • forestry
  • wildlife
  • agriculture
  • mental health
  • disabilities
  • housing
  • substance abuse
  • solid waste 
  • fire safety 
It's an incomplete list, and it's not hard to find examples where the commissioners have stumbled badly in recent years. The 200% over-budget Armory remodel, for example, is clearly a result of construction management problems, among others.

Meanwhile, the most important parts of a commissioner's job aren't even on the list: budget and policy. Actually, the budget is the main way the commissioners carry out policy, and policy decisions require a very high-level view of where the county is and where the commissioners want to take it. This kind of view is supposed to lead to a set of goals, which the commissioners then work to have all of county government support. I am not able to find a vision statement or list of goals on the board of county commissioners' website.

Part of the problem is that the commissioners spend most of their time on day-to-day operations of the county, leaving little time for policy-level thinking, but that is a topic for another post.