For 22 years John Ladenburg has been commuting from his South Tacoma home to the County-City Building downtown, first as prosecuting attorney and then as county executive.
No more. After eight years, Ladenburg is stepping down as the county’s chief executive. He’s leaving behind that 11-minute commute. And Ladenburg believes he’s leaving Pierce County a better place than it was eight years ago.
“We set out to do a lot of things,” he said. “I think we accomplished the great majority of them.”
Many political, business and community leaders agree. They say Ladenburg made Pierce County a strong player in regional transportation and economic development discussions. And they say he championed environmental causes such as farmland preservation and salmon habitat restoration.
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“John’s leadership on land use, economic development and environmental issues was very effective because he recognized Pierce County’s problems were part of the regional picture,” said John Purbaugh, chairman of the county planning commission.
Not everyone is a fan. Ladenburg won critics as well as admirers in fights over whether to build Chambers Bay Golf Course and the proposed cross-base highway.
Last month he lost the election – and his home county’s vote – in a bid to become state attorney general. And even admirers say he can be hard to work with.
“He is willing to take risks and fight for what he believes in,” said Bryan Flint, executive director of Tahoma Audubon. “While he could use some listening skills, we could use more leaders like him.”
Before becoming county executive, Ladenburg, a 59-year-old Democrat, spent 13 years in private law practice. He served four years on the Tacoma City Council and 14 as county prosecuting attorney.
In 2000 he won the executive’s job, pledging to improve regional cooperation on such issues as growth management, property taxes and the environment. He won re-election in 2004.
As executive, Ladenburg oversaw a government with 3,400 employees and a budget of more than $800 million. Along with the County Council, he set land-use, transportation, economic development and other policies. And he represented Pierce County on regional boards such as Sound Transit.
Ladenburg developed a reputation for big ideas. Some, like Chambers Bay, have come to pass. Others, like a new $105 million county administration building, have not.
But Ladenburg counts some relatively small projects among his accomplishments.
He cites the preservation of property at Snake Lake in Tacoma, a crackdown on illegal dumps, and construction of a new Pierce County emergency management center. He’s especially proud of the county’s planning for a natural or man-made disaster, which has become a model for other governments.
“It’s like the brakes on your car,” Ladenburg said. “You just assume they’re there.”
Others local leaders cite accomplishments big and small. County Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, praised Ladenburg for giving the council unfettered access to department heads. He said that helped the council do its job.
Despite some disagreements, Tahoma Audubon’s Flint called Ladenburg “the most environmentally minded county executive Pierce County has had.”
Flint said the executive’s accomplishments include buying flood plain for salmon habitat and flood control and championing low-impact development. Ladenburg also pursued farmland and open space preservation and – according to Flint – stood up to developers to improve protections for streams, wetlands and natural areas.
“I hope that his two terms will be seen for that important work,” Flint said. “It truly is a legacy that can outlast any man-made accomplishments.”
Several people cited Ladenburg’s work on regional issues such as transportation and economic development.
The executive chaired Sound Transit and supported the expansion package that voters approved last month. Councilman Calvin Goings, D-Puyallup, said it was a political risk to support a measure that many people didn’t like.
Ladenburg also helped develop and lead the Prosperity Partnership, a coalition of government and business leaders that is pushing a four-county economic development strategy. And he bolstered Pierce County’s own economic development efforts, implementing a program to help desirable businesses obtain county, state and federal permits.
Several leaders cited Chambers Bay Golf Course as Ladenburg’s crowning achievement.
Though a golf course had long been planned for a former gravel mine the county owned in University Place, it was Ladenburg’s idea to build a world-class course to host major tournaments and promote economic development.
The course opened last year. This year the United States Golf Association picked Chambers Bay to host the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2010 U.S. Amateur championship. The U.S. Open is expected to draw up to 65,000 people.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a fledgling course. Ladenburg says the U.S. Open will pump tens of millions of dollars into the local economy. And it’s already brought national attention to the community.
“It’s going to be the kind of thing that will help this region for a long time,” Ladenburg said.
But it hasn’t been all hosannas for Ladenburg.
Many county residents remain unconvinced that a golf course that charges up to $170 a round is a worthy public venture.
“Senior citizens and those with a disability or on a fixed income are priced out of playing the course,” John Mouring of Lakewood wrote in a letter to the editor of The News Tribune in September.
Mouring said “publicly funded courses should be accessible to all residents with affordable rates.”
Ladenburg also drew heat for his stake in a company that produced the Prometa drug treatment program.
Pierce County spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the experimental program. But the county’s performance audit staff found little evidence that Prometa was effective, prompting the County Council to halt funding last year.
As the council considered the funding issue, Ladenburg and other Prometa supporters admitted they owned stock in the company. Ladenburg owned shares valued at about $2,700 and sold them at a loss. He said the stock did not influence his support for Prometa.
But he lost the funding fight and took some lumps from council members who said he had shown poor judgment.
Even some of Ladenburg’s admirers say he can be hard to work with. An aggressive political fighter, he isn’t afraid of mixing it up once he’s made up his mind on an issue.
Take the cross-base highway, which would link Highway 7 to Interstate 5 on a route between Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. Local business leaders say the project is vital to developing the Frederickson industrial area. Environmental groups say it would destroy rare oak prairie and wildlife habitat.
Ladenburg sided with the business community and threatened to veto last year’s regional transportation plan unless it included money for the highway.
A compromise later provided some money for the highway. But environmental groups said the negotiations became so nasty that they postponed further talks until Ladenburg is out of office.
Flint said Ladenburg retains the style of a prosecutor, for good and bad.
“He did not appear to consult with a lot of people before making up his mind, and there was no changing it,” he said. “It is a strong style that served him well and also got in his way.”
Ladenburg conceded he is “not one to look back on decisions.” He said he tries to gather as much information as he can, then make a decision and move forward.
“I recognize that that creates enemies,” Ladenburg said. “But I often tell people, if you meet a politician who has no enemies, you’ve just met someone who has done nothing in office. You can guarantee yourself that’s a worthless elected official.”
As term limits were forcing him out of the executive’s post, Ladenburg brought his prosecutor’s style to this year’s attorney general’s race. He attacked Republican incumbent Rob McKenna as unqualified and soft on consumer crime.
But McKenna won easily. And Ladenburg won only 42 percent of voters in his home county.
Ladenburg said McKenna was a good candidate. But he also said he was the victim of close governor and presidential races.
Ladenburg said if the Barack Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton Democratic primary race had been decided earlier and if incumbent Gov. Chris Gregoire had been up by 7 points over Republican challenger Dino Rossi in August, his race would have gained more attention and money.
“I needed all those breaks to go my way, and they didn’t,” he said.
Now, for the first time in more than two decades, Ladenburg finds himself looking for a job outside the County-City Building. He said he might return to private law practice. Or he might seek appointment to a federal or state administrative post.
But Ladenburg said he’s not looking for just any job.
“I’m not going to be head of the lottery or something like that,” he said. “That’s just not me. I need to have a job where I can do some cutting-edge things, where I can make a difference.”
Ladenburg believes he’s made a difference in Pierce County. But challenges remain for the new executive, Democrat Pat McCarthy.
Tough economic times will make balancing the budget difficult. And while the county has ambitious plans to expand parks and other capital facilities, it doesn’t have the money for most of that work.
Ladenburg said he’s advised McCarthy to plot her own course rather than follow his priorities. He said she’ll have a steep learning curve, but so did he.
“When I got into office, I knew nothing about transportation,” he said.
As for all those unfunded capital projects, Ladenburg offered advice that seemed to sum up his philosophy of how to run county government.
“Your reach should always exceed your grasp,” he said. “Like I said about Chambers Bay, if you aim low and succeed, that’s the definition of failure.”
David Wickert: 253-274-7341
WHAT OTHERS SAY
Perspectives on John Landenburg's tenure as Pierce County executive
“He never sought cover from an issue by cowering behind a banal argument. Though I disagreed with him on a number of issues, his reasoning was always sound.” Democrat and County Council candidate “He has been involved in leadership roles regionally in both economic development and the related area of transportation. … And locally he has been a strong supporter of infrastructure and projects that will provide economic growth.” president, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce
“Bottom line: John Ladenburg is a strong and good public servant who has a deep sense of justice mixed with an insatiable drive to leave a legacy. He is willing to take risks and fight for what he believes in. While he could use some listening skills, we could use more leaders like him.” executive director, Tahoma Audubon
“I was very impressed with his allowing his directors to work with the council. … John is not a micromanager. He tends to give a vision and direction to his staff, and then they go out and make things happen.” Republican county councilman
“He drove (Chambers Bay Golf Course) to make it happen. He had the tenacity and perseverance and the drive to make it happen. It was a risk, but it’s proving to be successful. I think it’s going to be a huge legacy for this county.” Democrat and county executive-elect
“Although I can appreciate the need to do something with the (Chambers Creek) property, I am not sure the golf course was the best choice. He did make an effort to include trails and recycled the water, which are great if you have to have a golf course.” executive director, Friends Of Pierce County
“John Ladenburg aggressively promoted our joint interests with other large urban counties in Central Puget Sound to good effect. His energy, good mind and spirit of regional cooperation caused King and Snohomish counties to acknowledge our emergence as an economic partner.” government affairs director, Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors
THE LADENBURG ERA
Some key accomplishments …
Under John Ladenburg as executive, Pierce County spent $1.5 million to clean up a “dirty dozen” illegal dumps. Later, the program, dubbed “Pierce County Responds,” focused on junk cars and has removed more than 10,000 of them in recent years. “We’ve set a new standard of what we’re going to have as acceptable behavior by our neighbors,” Ladenburg said.
Ladenburg successfully pushed initiatives for farmland and open space preservation. He also supported the first expansion of Mount Rainier National Park in more than 50 years and spent money to build trails and expand county parks. Tahoma Audubon executive director Bryan Flint called Ladenburg “the most environmentally minded county executive Pierce County has had.”
Local political and business leaders say Ladenburg’s success at luring the 2015 U.S. Open to Chambers Bay validates his vision for a world-class golf course that would put Pierce County on the map. But Ladenburg admits it wasn’t at the top of his list when he was elected in 2000: “If you had interviewed me my first month in office and said, ‘Are you going to build a big golf course?’ (I would have said) ‘Well, that’s unlikely.’”
… and unfulfilled dreams
NEW ADMINISTRATION BUILDING
Two years ago Ladenburg proposed spending up to $105 million on a new county administration building. He said it would save the county millions in rent and allow it to consolidate offices. But the County Council never bought the idea. Ladenburg still thinks it will have to be done eventually.
In the corner of Ladenburg’s office is a shovel his staff gave him to break ground on the long-sought highway connecting Highway 7 to Interstate 5 on a route between Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. Though there has been progress on the highway, the executive never got to use that shovel, which is just fine with some opponents. “There’s a failure over there,” Ladenburg said, pointing to the shovel. “I’ll give that to (newly elected executive) Pat McCarthy.”
David Wickert, The News Tribune