Northwest NEWS

September 30, 2002


Breakdown in leadership

This is not about Woodinville versus Edmonds or Mountlake Terrace. What Brightwater really represents is nothing less than a breakdown of leadership in Snohomish County and the prospect that citizens may not have a say in the future of their own communities as a result of the precedent being set here. A racket should be echoing off the mountains and yet many seem to assume that there is no way to oppose this and that the discussion should be concentrated instead, on minor points and details.
   This is really similar to a situation I was part of in Austin, Texas going back to the 1970s. Back then we were dealing with the apparently unchangeable fact of life that government in the South was based on a philosophy that decisions should be made "by the few who know best for everyone else" and that the main role for citizens in the process is to simply ask questions about those decisions - but not too critically. You weren't supposed to be impolite.
   It took a lot of organizing and public discussion to change that paradigm, but it changed. Completely.
   There was a lot at stake in Austin and there is no less at stake here. Local citizens should be at the decision table, not outside the door. Local leaders should not be confused about the difference between administration and leadership.
   Eminent domain should not be in the picture. Nor should Snohomish County officials be afraid of it. Interpretation by King County that the legal ability providing for cleanup of Lake Washington extends to pre-emption of local communities across the county line, has not been court tested. It is a dangerous precedent and responsible county or local government should not allow it without a fight.
   Furthermore, this appears to be a developer support boondoggle that may well wind up setting forces in motion that overwhelm attempts at responsible planning by local government entities.
   Consequences, whether unintended or intentional, still need to be considered and debated by the most intense critics in the community- under the hottest public lights. Applying the Texas experience, a billion dollars in sewage capacity sets off an investment wave as competitive developers locate the hundred million dollar financing they need to build subdivisions so as to hurry to the market with new homes and condominiums.
   The prospect of profit on this scale creates massive pressure on government at all levels, from the small city council to the Governor's office. Campaign financing is only a small part of it.
   With billions at stake, the entire playing field will tilt. It will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible for local government to resist the pressure to approve building subdivisions where promises were made before not to build. In a few years, as more new residents move in, new and larger roads will be needed, new clean water sources, along with reservoirs, pipelines and plants.
   Taxes will have to be raised. Bonded indebtedness will mount as money is spent against an enlarging future tax base to build schools, and create other new infrastructures.
   Promises made today will be like the promises once made to the indians in the face of all this. Brightwater is being built on the assumption that there will need to be about another 500,000 new sewer taps.
   That may be around a million and a half new residents. If some 60 percent indeed wind up in Snohomish County, that will be an additional 900,000 people, in the southern half of the county, which now has 650,000 people. (by the way, the entire county grew by 250,000 people between 1990 and 2000.)
   There may be any number of ways this may play out. The point is that citizens whose future is on the line here need to be involved, not just in meetings where they are given handouts and treated to powerpoint presentations by condescending King County staff people who seem very proud of themselves. Citizens need to have a role in the decisions being made here.
   Eminent domain is also preventing true debate, since decisionmaking has already concluded in the apparent view of King County. Regional decisionmaking, however, is not a fait accompli rubber stamped by compliant elected officials.
   Proposals like this ought to involve real local critics who have studied this the most, working this from the ground up. The basic assumptions need open heart surgery before votes are taken and agreements to go ahead are reached-with citizens at the table.
   This project threatens the most basic principles of local American government. If the leadership is too afraid to stand up to this, then it is up to the citizens to take the leadership role.
   Stuart Heady, Edmonds