Matt Driscoll

We should be glad Ladenburg is back at work. We should be angry we weren’t told about her absence

Connie Ladenburg
Connie Ladenburg Courtesy photo

Connie Ladenburg returned to the Pierce County Council dais Tuesday. It was a good sign.

It had been a while — a long while, in fact. Before this week, the last time Ladenburg represented the constituents of District 4 was in early May.

As The News Tribune’s Josephine Peterson reported, Ladenburg missed seven meetings during that stretch, along with plenty of important votes and a significant number of committee meetings. She cited health reasons, and the absence was excused by County Council Chairman Doug Richardson.

As an elected official, Ladenburg draws an annual salary of $121,000 including benefits, with paychecks continuing to arrive during her absence. Based on an analysis by The News Tribune — which, full disclosure, was quick math — that pencils out to a 7-week total of roughly $17,000.

Admittedly, it might be tempting to pass judgment on the validity of Ladenburg’s explanation. That’s especially true since part of her absence was spent taking in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. (For an elected, those are some pretty crummy “optics,” as they say.)

I’m not a doctor, however, and there’s a strong chance you aren’t either. Even if we were, we’d have no way of diagnosing Ladenburg after reading a single news story. So let’s hit pause on the knee jerks and stone casting. It’s not fair.

What is fair to question, though, is the manner in which Ladenburg’s extended absence was handled.

One way or another, Ladenburg’s constituents should have known.

We all should have known.

This isn’t hard.

Ladenburg told The News Tribune that she’s under no obligation to inform the public on the state of her health. She also said that “the people that needed to be aware were made aware” of her plans.

She’s exactly right about the first part. No doubt. Even as an elected official, Ladenburg is entitled to medical privacy, and privacy in general.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t be more wrong about the second.

We employ a democracy, one that depends on constituents having representation on the county’s 7-person council. When that representation disappears, it has an impact.

That impact is felt in more ways than one. It doesn’t just leave constituents voiceless, it has the potential to swing votes, which can affect the whole county.

Ladenburg could have informed the public of her planned departure, without providing medical specifics, or the county’s robust communications team could have done the job. Either way would have worked and been far better than what transpired.

While the specifics obviously differ, this isn’t new territory for the council, either. When then-Councilman Rick Talbert took a leave of absence in 2014 for cancer-related kidney surgery, he made an announcement.

People knew.

In Tacoma, when Councilman Robert Thoms was deployed to Afghanistan for much of 2018, the city issued a press release.

People knew.

You know what else happened? Residents of Thoms’ District 1 raised a ruckus when the City Council appeared unlikely to appoint a temporary replacement, because they were less than thrilled by the idea of going unrepresented.

Understandably so. The full City Council eventually agreed.

Again, the specifics differs — significantly — in both these cases. They’re not exact parallels, and I’m not suggesting they are. There wouldn’t have been time to appoint a temporary replacement for Ladenburg, for instance.

I’m also sure there are other instances where local elected officials have taken leaves of absence without anyone raising a fuss — or even knowing about it.

But I’m equally certain of another thing:

When an elected official is going to be gone — gone for nearly two months — constituents have a right to know about it.

We all should know about it.

It amounts to a basic courtesy, and it should be a basic of open, transparent government.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.