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Puget Sound Partnership isn’t winning public trust

Post by Kim Bradford on Aug. 21, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
August 25, 2010 9:26 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Puget Sound is in serious need of cleanup. It’s also in serious need of a cleanup agency that the public trusts to oversee the job.

On that score, the Puget Sound Partnership is failing. Its management practices invite skepticism and undermine its own mission to secure money for the Sound’s rescue.

First came the May state audit that found cost overruns, failure to follow the law in awarding no-bid contracts and wrongful use of state money on gifts.

The partnership spent nearly $12,000 on monogrammed jackets and fleece vests for its staff, federal employees and state legislators. Part of the purchase violated state law.

So too did another set of recognition awards – this time, mahogany gift boxes with bottles of sparking cider – given to Canadian officials, contractors and Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The partnership repeatedly bypassed state purchasing processes, neglecting to shop around, buying items that weren’t compatible with existing state equipment and circumventing state contracting rules.

As if the audit findings weren’t bad enough, public radio station KUOW has now dug deeper, painting an even less favorable portrait of the agency.

Reporter John Ryan has zeroed in on the unfair distribution of consulting contracts. He found that personal and political connections paid off big time.

For example: The state auditor dinged the partnership for signing a $19,999 contract with the K&L Gates law firm.

Under the contract, the partnership paid lawyer Gerry Johnson nearly $500 a hour to set up a nonprofit foundation requested by state lawmakers.

The agency could have asked the attorney general’s office to do the work, but cited the firm’s expertise and ability to get it done faster. It ultimately ended up extending the contract twice and paying the law firm $51,498.

Johnson, by the way, worked with partnership executive director David Dicks’ father – Congressman Norm Dicks – in U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson’s office.

He’s not the only person with political and personal connections to find work at the partnership. Former Dicks’ staffers Tom Luce and Steve McBee got hefty consulting contracts with the partnership.

Certainly, the partnership isn’t the first agency to hire consultants for their access and ability to grease official skids. But what troubled the state auditor was that the partnership gave jobs to the well-connected without letting others on the agency’s own roster of qualified firms compete for them.

For an agency that desperately needs to win public support and taxpayer dollars for the fight to save the Sound, practices that give even the appearance of cronyism are big setbacks.

KUOW has turned up other troubling instances of management gaffes, if not ethical and legal violations.

A whistle-blower accused David Dicks of using state resources to campaign for a King County candidate.
After prematurely tipping off the parties involved about the complaint and fumbling the investigation, the state closed the case. The partnership then fired the whistle-blower – a big no-no. To keep her from suing, the partnership paid out $40,000.

Then there is the issue of Dicks’ state car. He is the only member of the governor’s cabinet to have a state-assigned vehicle besides State Patrol Chief John Batiste who has been known to flip the lights and write a ticket or two.

Dicks claims he doesn’t use the Prius to commute – which could be a violation of state law – but also claims that the car’s official station is in front of his house in Seattle.

At the very least, he is not doing his agency any public-relations favors. The partnership has promised to clean up its act. It must before it will have any hope of cleaning up the Sound.

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