Peter Callaghan: New lawmakers, charter schools and historic rail structures

Staff WriterDecember 26, 2013 

It’s update Thursday here at The News Tribune:

Legislative appointments: Somewhere between adoption of the state constitution’s section on filling vacancies to partisan offices in 1956 and today has emerged something that partisans refer to as “tradition.”

Rather than follow the constitution, which directs a county council or commission to fill vacancies from three nominees approved by local political parties, the parties now feel they should make the appointment.

First, they began ranking their three choices to communicate their preference, even though ranking isn’t recognized in the constitution. Sometimes — OK, often — they try to further manipulate the process by making the second and third picks pledge not to accept the appointment or even show up for the interviews.

It is tradition, the party leaders say, for their first choice to be anointed. And too many county council members and commissioners feel they should rubber-stamp the top choice of the local party.

Yet sometimes — OK, rarely — county elected officials actually do their duty. This year the Pierce County Council appointed Steve O’Ban to a vacant 28th District Senate seat, even though he finished second among local precinct committee members. And last week the King County Council, led by minority Republicans (even though the council is nonpartisan, according to the county charter), chose to appoint the second choice of 33rd District precinct committee members.

Party leaders — as well as the husband of the passed-over first choice — cried foul. But in the end, a known Democrat with good credentials — SeaTac City Council member Mia Gregerson — was appointed. And with that, the King County Council overlooked a phony tradition and reasserted its authority under the state constitution.

Charter Schools: I hope you missed the Twitter wars that resulted from the release of a King County Superior Court ruling on the constitutional challenge to the charter schools initiative earlier this month.

In the race to be first, some newsies took to Twitter to echo the claim by the Washington Education Association that the judge found the measure unconstitutional and the union had won a major victory.

While Judge Jean Rietschel did find sections of the measure unconstitutional, she upheld the bulk of the initiative. Even the invalidated sections on how the proposed charters can be funded will not prevent them from opening.

Yes, the handful of charters that will be created next year can’t get money from the state share of the property tax or from the common school construction fund. Both are restricted to “common schools,” and charters do not meet that constitutional definition, the judge ruled.

But so much money flows to public schools from the unrestricted state general fund and bond sales that the judge’s concerns can be resolved with nothing more complex than a budget proviso.

Even that didn’t stop charter opponents and their sympathizers from continuing to press the myth that the initiative had been tossed out. Perhaps they figured that if you don’t win in court you can win on Twitter.

The case will be appealed, giving everyone another chance to place being right ahead of being first.

Freighthouse Square: It is comforting to see that the state Department of Transportation is trying to walk back from its proposal to tear down the 1909 Milwaukee Road offices near the Tacoma Dome. As presented to Dome District activists earlier this month, DOT and VIA Architecture of Seattle were proposing a modern replacement to serve as a new Amtrak station.

The design did not win any fans. But the design isn’t the point, because there is no need for a new building at all. A restored historic building can easily hold what Amtrak and the Amtrak Cascades need in a station: ticket windows, waiting area and baggage operation.

As the state proceeds, it needs to move toward a remodel of the solid, wood-framed building, even if that means selecting a different architect with experience in that type of work. There are several in the Tacoma area who would love the opportunity to design a modern station that fits with the historic Dome District.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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