When it comes to government stewardship of the public’s dollars, perception often becomes reality.
Such is the case with a recent story about Peter Goldmark, the state’s commissioner of public lands. The (Tacoma) News Tribune and NPR reported that Goldmark frequently uses a chartered Washington State Patrol airplane to fly to meetings and conduct the people’s business. Since his second term began in 2013, Goldmark’s department has spent $72,000 to rent the plane, which is available to all state executives but infrequently used by others.
In a state budget of nearly $40 billion a year, this is not an excessive amount. But that is where perception comes in, because the public understandably is quick to seize on any opportunity to decry the notion that government is filled with wasteful spenders who have little regard for taxpayers. Because of that, it is incumbent upon state officials to try to remain above reproach.
In Goldmark’s case, he makes a strong argument that flying to various events is a wise expenditure of public money. His office, after all, oversees the state’s 5.6 million acres of public land, a duty that often draws him to rural areas that are not accessible by commercial flights or would require much driving time.
Trips to those areas are, indeed, easily justified. But the broader issue brings up the axiom that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. The News Tribune article highlighted a two-day trip that Goldmark and department spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser took to Vancouver, B.C., on a chartered plane from the State Patrol. While Vancouver, B.C., is easily accessed by commercial flights out of Sea-Tac International Airport, the chartered plane made one trip to deliver Goldmark and Kaiser and another to pick them up. Total price tag: $6,068.
Again, this won’t break the state budget. And Goldmark said: “I don’t think the people of the state of Washington want me stranded on I-5 as opposed to pursuing their good work.” Actually, if we’re talking about a trip to British Columbia, the people of the state of Washington would, indeed, prefer that Goldmark make the drive from Olympia to Sea-Tac in order to save several thousand bucks.
This is particularly problematic for an office that has frequently — and rightfully — come to the Legislature with hat in hand in hopes of landing more funding to fight wildfires. The devastating fire years of 2014 and 2015 led to emergency spending from the state and have pointed out the need for increased prevention efforts. But that case is easier to make when lawmakers and the public have faith that frugality is the rule within the department. As state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said of Goldmark’s chartered flight to Vancouver, B.C.: “I’m sitting here thinking of how many fire hoses we could buy for that.”
Overall, Goldmark has been a strong public lands commissioner, effectively drawing attention to the issues facing the state’s vast swaths of public land and lending a forward-thinking vision to the department. He opted to not run for a third term this year and will be replaced by Hilary Franz, who was elected in November.
Franz has not indicated how often she will make use of the available chartered flights, but she would be wise to heed the lessons from the minor controversy surrounding Goldmark’s flights: Little criticisms can become big in the minds of the public, as perception often becomes reality.