Most citizens probably wouldn’t have expected emotions to blow up and decorum to melt down at a Pierce County committee meeting Tuesday, based on the innocuous single item on the agenda (a solid waste management plan). Then again, most citizens haven’t met Pam Roach.
The biggest histrionics took place in the first five minutes of the Economic and Infrastructure Development Committee meeting, chaired by Roach. After she held forth about committee rules and procedures she’d like to change, Councilman Rick Talbert suggested that perhaps the full council could take up the discussion another time.
Suddenly, Roach and Talbert exchanged a flurry of interruptions, snapping like alpha dogs. Talbert, D-Tacoma, insisted he had the floor and should be allowed to speak while Roach, R-Sumner, swung her gavel and announced “I am the chair!” no less than five times.
Roach ordered the clerk to shut down the members’ microphones — “Just turn ’em off. Turn ’em all off,” Roach said — and eventually acted surprised to learn her mic was dead, too.
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In the intervening 3 1/2 minutes, a video of the meeting shows Roach moving her lips and holding up props, as if channeling silent movie era actress Lillian Gish.
It might have been comical if the whole scene wasn’t so nasty.
Henceforth, Roach said she will use a touchscreen “gizmo” to turn off the audio as she sees fit. The device will “keep us from being interrupted and having rude, crude hearings,” she said, glancing sharply at Talbert.
She was correct about the “rude, crude” part. Yet true to form, she was oblivious to her leading role in creating that atmosphere.
Talbert, a six-year council veteran, can handle Roach’s torments and needs no defense from us. Talbert can give as good as he gets; he’s had tense confrontations at public meetings through the years with Councilman Dan Roach, Pam’s son.
The problem that must be addressed immediately is Pam Roach’s bullying of county staff. At Tuesday’s meeting, it didn’t take long for her to publicly lay into a staff member for not properly updating the agenda. After the employee confessed his sin, she continued to pick and poke at staff, despite her own procedural gaffes adding to the confusion in the room.
If she’s this disrespectful to staff in public, we shudder to think what happens behind closed doors.
County Executive Bruce Dammeier is ultimately responsible for the county’s workforce, and that means guarding against a hostile work environment. As a fellow Republican and former colleague in the Legislature, he should call on whatever influence he has with Roach. We trust he is.
Roach was notorious for treating employees harshly during her 26-year Senate career, including sanctions in 2010 that prevented her from having direct contact with Republican caucus staff. She must not be allowed to repeat those offenses here, in part because the county can’t risk legal settlements.
County Council Chairman Doug Richardson owes a duty to staff, too, but his main job is promoting teamwork among the seven council members. Organizations like the Municipal Research and Services Center, based in Seattle, can offer resources on small-group dynamics. Richardson would do well to seek help — not only to foster respectful council relations, but also in the interest of conducting the public’s business efficiently and effectively.
On Wednesday, Richardson said what happened at Roach’s committee meeting was “very unfortunate.” He also called it part of the “storming” process as this year’s council settles in. Keep your fingers crossed.
Roach is not the first Olympia transplant to act like the fast pace, caucus politics and power plays of the statehouse will transfer easily to the county-city building. She’s also not the first to seemingly think she can shake up the county culture overnight.
Roach has energy and brains to spare, but if she wants to go about this transition the right way, she could do worse than asking her son how he did it.
Before she was elected last fall, this editorial board warned that Roach’s imperious, sometimes abusive style could play poorly in the close quarters of local government. In less than a month on the job, she’s already showing her colors.
Tuesday’s performance might have had comical moments, but her behavior is nothing to laugh off.