MONTESANO — Patience may be the most valuable skill the new Board of County Commissioners will need to learn if it’s going to have any kind of success during the next couple of years.
That’s the collective observation of previous county commissioners interviewed by The Daily World — a combined 40 years experience in the same chairs occupied by newcomers Wes Cormier and Frank Gordon, along with Chairman Herb Welch, who has just been in office for two years.
It’s the first time in decades that the board has had such a fresh feel to it.
“The advice I would have given them is not to run, but now they’re stuck,” joked former commissioner Bob Beerbower, who served from 1995 to 2008.”Seriously, though, they may have had their friends and even political party that helped them get into office, but now that they’re there, they need to represent everybody. They need to make sure they’re representing the county’s best interests.”
Former commissioner Dennis Morrisette, who served from 2001 to 2004 after 19 years as sheriff, said that the new board may have its first majority of Republicans in about 80 years, but now is the time for them to prove they can work beyond party labels.
“I never voted on anything because a Democratic party leader told me to do it,” Morrisette said.
Welch and Cormier are the two Republicans on the board and Gordon is a Democrat.
Former commissioner Al Carter, who served from 2003 to 2010, said he remembers “being really energetic and thinking I could make a big difference and then I found out a lot about being a commissioner and the process. Well, there are things a commissioner can do and things they can’t. And, really, you can’t do anything unless you have a second vote. That means building relationships and trust from the start.”
“Don’t get flustered and don’t hurry to make decisions,” he added.
“For every action, there’s a reaction,” Morrisette said. “I always try to think about the reaction before I take the action. Government moves at turtle speed. Government was never designed to be efficient as much as it was designed to be accountable. The reason things move as slow as they do is because we’re all held accountable.”
“A lot of people who come into office have some crazy agenda and think they can change everything,” Beerbower added. “But a commissioner needs to have patience to know that change comes slow. And part of that is making sure a commissioner has all of the information needed before casting a critical vote.”
Former commissioner Terry Willis, who just finished her four-year term, agreed that patience is critical, especially in the budget process. She noted that the commissioners also need to know that the county employees are there to help, as well.
“The best advice I can give them is we have a really good staff that works at the courthouse and they should listen to them intently,” she said. “The staff’s advice will keep them out of trouble.”
Former commissioner Mike Wilson, who served from 2005 until last year, said the new board would be “crazy” if they didn’t heed the advice of the board’s clerk, Donna McCallum.
“Until they get some meetings under their belt, they really have no sense of perspective of what the job is,” Wilson said.
Former commissioner Dan Wood, who served from 2000 to 2003, admits he never quite had the patience he wishes he would have had.
“I was 34 when I started on the commission, fourth or fifth youngest commissioner in the state at the time,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I would be much more in tune that I’m not a patient person and work to express more patience and understanding.”
Wood said he did learn quickly to question everything.
“Just because something’s always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s always been done the right way,” Wood said.
Wood said he recalls working with the county’s environmental health division, which was permitting an in-home day care outside Hoquiam.
“They were told the day care would have had to have certain setbacks, but, because of limitations on space, it would have meant the day care would have gone out of business,” Wood said. “Well, I helped the business check the regulations to find the legal authority that the county was using to make their determination. As it turned out, no rules could be found. Nothing was in the code. So what happened is that someone may have made a determination wrong the first time and repeated it for 37 years. It was a reminder to me that it’s appropriate — it’s the job of the commissioner to ask why do we do it that way. A well-intended senior or junior staff member could be making a mistake and not know it. When a public official is willing to say, ‘We made a mistake let me help you with this’ that increases confidence in government.”
Carter said during his first year in office he talked to just about everyone he could and established a reputation of being the go-to-guy for community meetings. At one point, he had a meeting in Amanda Park in the morning, Ocean Shores in the day time and Westport at night.
“Sleep could be a luxury for these guys,” Carter said.
Beerbower says he was heavily involved in the county’s association and recommends that all three of the commissioners participate in the group.
“When you don’t have the experience among the board, the county association can help you learn from others,” Beerbower said.
“I also recommend that the commissioners really get out there and know the people, get to know the road supervisor and the road crew and ride around with them quite a bit,” Beerbower said. “Not everybody comes into the courthouse.”
And extra patience is required for those who use the county’s public comment period, several county commissioners said.
As chairman, at least twice, Carter had to call in a couple deputies to monitor public comment sessions after the talk had gotten intense.
And there was the time Morrisette as chairman banged his gavel so hard to quiet someone during a public comment session that the chain and block connected to it went flying into the air and almost hit Carter and Beerbower in the face. The story’s still told today as a warning to new commissioners not to bang the gavel too hard.
Beerbower says he thinks the current crop of commissioners should do whatever it takes to settle the lawsuit with the judges.
But Wood’s not so sure.
“The judges will threaten to put you in jail,” Wood said. “And the response should be, ‘If you think you can do that, sign the order and I’ll vote from jail.’ And I mean that for all seriousness. They threatened to throw us in jail when I was there. … I think a long line of commissioners have held their ground when our superior court judges have come in since the late ’90s and demanded that they get everything they want in the budget and have threatened to jail commissioners and not once have they jailed a commissioner. Settling the lawsuit may be more expensive than holding firm and saying ‘no.’”
Carter says that the commissioners need to make public safety a priority, especially in the more rural areas of the county.
Wood and Morrisette also said that the county needs to continue to be vigilant in building reserves up. The county’s operational reserves dropped down to $2.383 million in 2010, its lowest level in more than a decade. Its since been built up to more than $4 million. The county will get a clear idea of the 2011 ending reserve balance during a briefing next week.
“These three are going to have to get to know one another and help put the county back together,” Morrisette said.
“The county needs to be able to live on 95 percent of its anticipated revenue,” Wood said. “Most households can live on that kind of budget and that allows a reserve to build year after year. We’ve been in crisis mode for pretty much the last 10 years and it’s hard to get out of that mode it’s like a toxic or hazardous waste spill. First, you have to contain it and then you have to clean it up. My advice to them is you have to contain the spill and stop spending out of the reserves.”