Opinion

Let’s keep Pierce County poobah-free

From the editorial board

The County-City Building on Tacoma Avenue in Tacoma is where the Pierce County Council meets. Nothing in the county charter or state law currently prohibits an individual from serving here at the same time they hold public office in Olympia.
The County-City Building on Tacoma Avenue in Tacoma is where the Pierce County Council meets. Nothing in the county charter or state law currently prohibits an individual from serving here at the same time they hold public office in Olympia. News Tribune file photo

There are dangers that derive from letting a single person hold too much power. It was given voice by the Grand Poobah, a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, “The Mikado.” The Poobah held so many titles — archbishop, lord mayor, first lord of the treasury, lord high admiral and lord high everything else — that he wore his conflicts of interest with arch self awareness.

Pierce County residents can be grateful they don’t have any single leader lording over them like a poobah. But the consolidation of authority into too few hands can take more subtle forms. Nothing in the county charter, for example, prevents an individual from holding more than one elected office at the county and state levels. Nothing in Washington law prevents it either.

The county Charter Review Commission has a chance to correct this omission locally when it completes its work this week.

Five months of public comment and debate on a myriad of proposed charter amendments will conclude Wednesday night. Roughly 10 ideas will be up for a decision, including what’s expected to be a close vote to ban dual office-holding. Any amendments approved by the 21-member commission would then be forwarded to the November ballot.

One hopes voters will get the opportunity to do what Tacoma has already done: Block elected local government leaders from taking on extra duties, influence and salary by simultaneously holding an elected state post.

Voters have every right to demand the undivided attention of County Council members, who are paid a handsome $108,000 a year.

Charter review commissioner Martha Lantz said she proposed the amendment after hearing from citizens who were surprised dual office-holding isn’t already prohibited. Adopting it, Lantz said in an interview Tuesday, would “send a message that we expect elected officials to devote loyalties to the office they are holding and not be distracted by conflicts of interest or other employment or whatever the case may be.”

Other persuasive arguments to close the door on double dipping are laid out in the book “One to a Customer” by Tom O’Neill. The author was motivated by concern over potential abuses in New Jersey, one of 18 states (including Washington) where dual office-holding is not considered inherently incompatible. O’Neill makes the case that it increases a politician’s grip on power, thwarts the system of checks and balances between levels of government, and blocks up-and-comers from climbing the political ladder.

It also creates “low-show jobs” for politicians trying to juggle two heavy workloads, O’Neill writes.

He could’ve been referring to Tim Sheldon, who has simultaneously served as Mason County commissioner and state legislator for 12 years and has faced criticism for missing commission meetings. (Sheldon is not running for re-election to the local post this year.)

For better or worse, Sheldon has long been the prominent example of a dual office-holder.

Now that role may be inherited by the indefatigable Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, who is running for Pierce County Council.

Roach said Tuesday that, if elected to the council, she would step down from the Senate eventually. But she wouldn’t commit to a timeframe, only saying it would happen after next year’s legislative session. She wants voters in her Senate district to elect her successor.

Roach may be right that the charter amendment is an unvarnished attempt to boot her from a 25-year legislative career in which she’s made many enemies. “This is the easiest way in the world to take Pam Roach out. You don’t have to find a candidate, you don’t have to campaign against her.”

It’s unfortunate the amendment has been entangled in election-year gamesmanship. Charter commissioner Carolyn Edmonds, who is running against Roach for County Council, should absolutely recuse herself from Wednesday’s vote.

But politics never sleeps, and there will never be a perfect time to ban dual office-holding.

Pierce County Charter Review commissioners should do it now. And the Legislature should follow by ending the practice statewide.

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