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March 28, 2006

A Man with a Big Progressive Agenda: Ron Sims

Ron Sims, in his third term as King County Executive after 11 years on the County Council, has a hefty agenda for his third term.  His primary focus is global warming which dictates cleaning up Puget Sound, improving the transportation system, supporting environmental initiatives, preserving another 100,000 acres of King County land, and developing 100’s of miles of additional trails.  In addition, he works on combating poverty, reinvigorating the older suburbs, protecting civil rights and improving health care both for county workers and the general population.  Oh, and by the way, preparing the county in the case of pandemic bird flu in the next few years. 

He’s clearly a man in a hurry and he’s willing to take risks and to support those on this staff who take risks.  It’s that kind of time in history, he says. 

The innovative, forward-looking work that has been done in this county has won Sims kudos from the rest of the country but not a lot of recognition here.  I came away from the interview with Ron, my research and discussions with a number of folks who work closely with him puzzled as to why the last election was even close, especially given the sad-sack quality of his opponent.  I would guess that someone who has been leading in a somewhat non-traditional way for so long would piss some folks off and I know that is true with Sims. 

It’s also possible he’s grown in the job and that growth has not registered with his opponents.  Or the county as an entity may just not be something that people can get their minds around.  Whatever, it’s a puzzle.  I didn’t hear a lot in either the 2004 gubernatorial campaign or the 2005 campaign for his third term as KC executive about the tremendous amount that Sims has actually accomplished.

The people I talked to love working with and for Ron Sims.  People from the floor receptionist to his immediate staff talk about his creativity, his caring, his energy, his focus on paying attention to the facts and working off them, his desire to foster and implement ideas that make people’s lives better. 

Makes sense to me.  Plus it’s hard to argue with his successes.  Also, more than any other elected official, Sims understands and appreciates the progressive blogs and the bloggers willingness to take risks.  He comes to Drinking Liberally occasionally and keeps in touch with us which is quite refreshing.

The interview, along with a lot of research on what goes on in the county, is after the fold.

Global Warming

When Sims shared his list of top goals for this term, addressing global warming was on top.  I asked him why. He said:

Global warming will define everything we do in the future.  We are way ahead of the curve on that.  No one in the world is doing what we are doing here in King County.  We have the largest fleet of hydrogen fuel buses.  We have the largest fleet of diesel buses.  We use electric cars here in the county.  We are focused on forest retention practices; so far we have retained 135,000 acres of forests, which is very important to particulate reduction.  We have built green buildings and are into water reclamation in a big way.  And we are focused on saving our wetlands.

The PI’s Lisa Stiffler wrote about Sims and what the county is doing to cut greenhouse gas emissions last week after Sims signed four executive orders aimed at further minimizing global warming gas production in the day-to-day operations of county government.  In that article, Sims said he hopes  “the county can serve as a ‘national lab,’ testing ideas for reducing planet-warming pollution -- such as carbon dioxide and methane gases -- and preparing for the effects of a warmer world. The gases are created primarily when oil, gas and coal are burned.”  The article lists the plans that will be developed as a result of the executive orders:

  • Using 50 percent renewable energy -- such as plant-derived biodiesel -- for vehicles by 2020 and by 2012 for non-transit uses.
  • Reclaiming all of the wastewater produced at the county's sewage treatment plants for reuse, potentially returning some of the water back to pools trapped underground that are used for drinking water.
  • Capturing all of the greenhouse gases produced by rotting garbage at King County's Cedar Hills Regional Landfill and turning that gas into energy.
  • Protecting 100,000 acres of undeveloped land in the county, which can reduce the amount of warming gases when plants consume carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, and promoting land-use policies that reduce sprawl and create communities where amenities are in walking distance.

The Climate Change Conference

In October of 2005 King County hosted a Climate Change Conference at Quest Field that was attended by close to 700 folks.  Attendees included scientists, writers and county personnel.  The conference focused on how the shifts in global climate might impact the Northwest and how we might plan for those changes. 

From the King County website, here’s what Sims said as he welcomed the participants to that Climate Change Conference:

We expect water levels in the Sound to rise significantly. That means greater flooding risk for our low-lying areas. We expect the snow caps and glaciers in our mountains to shrink and retreat. That means drought conditions in our summers, and potential shortages of drinkable water.

What about irrigation and drinking water needs on both sides of the Cascades? What happens to our forests, our fishing and agriculture industries and what is the resulting impact on the rest of the state's economy.

That is why we have to act – before it is too late. Today, we seek to open another front on the fight against global warming. Our prevention efforts have been in full swing for some time, but unfortunately that is not enough. Given the reality of climate change, we know there will be serious impacts on our way of life. Simply stated: some climate impacts are inevitable. But we also know that we can head off much of the potentially disastrous impacts by being prepared.

He shared what King County has been working on for decades in trying to take cars off the roads:

  •   Operating the largest bus system in the Pacific Northwest
  •   Leading on growth management
  •   Buying development rights to preserve greenspace and our rural areas

And in cleaning up its tailpipe emissions:

  • Purchasing more hybrid buses and cars than any other government of its size.—235 hybrid    buses and 140 hybrid cars
  • By incorporating biodiesel into our Metro bus and Solid Waste fleets—we are the largest user of biodiesel in the state
  • And by fighting for tough tailpipe standards in Olympia

Pushing cleaner, more efficient, and alternative sources of energy, including:

  • The largest landfill gas-to-energy project in our region.
  • One of the largest wastewater fuel cell projects in the world
  • Upgrades to our wastewater treatment systems to capture more energy and use it on-site
  • Establishing Green Building standard for our buildings
  • Implementing efficiency upgrades for our facilities, and
  • Exploring manure digesters on the Enumclaw Plateau

Preservation of Open Space

In that same talk, he shared what the county has done toward preserving green space for the same reasons.  “Preserving green space has been a priority of mine since I became Executive nine years ago. Back then, King County had only 25,000 acres of such land under permanent protection. Now that figure is more than 125,000 acres, and I have made a commitment to conserve in perpetuity 100,000 more acres by 2010.”

Areas set aside include Hancock Forest and Cougar Mountain and some parts of Black Diamond.  The county has also been proactive in developing walking trails and just recently opened the East Lake Sammamish Trail, an 11-mile stretch of trail that links the Sammamish River and the Burke-Gilman trails.  Completion of the East Lake Sammamish Trail provides users with 40 miles of continuous non-motorized trail, stretching from Ballard to Issaquah. King County has invested more than $20 million to acquire, develop and restore a system of 157 miles of trails -- a model for the nation. The long-term plan calls to bring that total up to more than 300 miles of trails linking communities throughout King County.

Innovative Healthcare for Workers

In our talk, Sims mentioned other areas where King County is tackling issues that no one else is touching.  He mentioned the innovative healthcare plan for employees that is garnering attention from around the country.

He created a Health Care Task Force in Dec. 2003 and tasked that group with developing innovative strategies to provide quality healthcare for county employees at a cost that the county could afford.  As is typical with Sims, he read up on the issue and provided guidelines as to what he expected to see.  From his kick-off talk, on the King County website, we get the details.  He said that the big drivers of healthcare costs are chronic conditions, which can be managed, and catastrophic events, which cannot.  He went on to say that 20-30% of healthcare spending does not improve quality of life or extend life.  Then he suggested a three-part strategy to reduce costs and improve quality of life for county employees:

  • Engage and enable employees to become informed health care consumers – provide employees with information and tools they need to invest their health care dollars wisely based on quality, cost, proven effectiveness and value.
  • Reinforce and reward provider and patient focus on wellness, disease management and active participation in health care decisions.
  • Establish consensus-based standards of health care cost and quality measurements designed to provide meaningful information about whether care is safe, timely, beneficial, patient-centered, equitable and efficient.

That initial effort has since been expanded to cover five counties in the Puget Sound area and is now called the Puget Sound Health Alliance.  The Alliance, chaired by Sims, is the only organization of its kind in the nation that is working to control costs through collective market forces and agreement to use evidence-based medicine as a way to control costs by improving the quality of care. More than 700,000 people are represented by the 80 businesses, health care providers, insurers and governments who are Alliance members.

In January of this year, Sims went on the road with the plan to share its successes with other organizations around the country.  He and Annette King of Starbucks made a presentation to the World Health Congress.  King County's innovative Health Reform Initiative is being presented by the Progressive Policy Institute as a national solution to the problem of high health care costs that are crippling the nation's economy. The institute is recommending the King County approach should be replicated regionally throughout the country and supported at the federal level through legislation.

Tackling Poverty by Creating Wealth

In a recent profile of Sims in the Washington Post by E.J. Dionne, Sims said that he “believes government's job is to help create wealth more efficiently."  The article says:

Sims notes that after World War II, the federal government helped unleash an era of exceptional growth through investments in schools, interstate highways and higher education. Both India and China are "making intelligent moves for economic growth" and the United States cannot stand by and watch. "You need people and brains to create an economy," he says. "You need transportation to move an economy. And you need an environmental policy to create clean air and clean water."

Sims's idea reminds Democrats that a commitment to active government is not simply about redistributing wealth. It is also rooted in the historically sound insight that effective government has always been essential to robust economic growth. Government, in the Sims formulation, should be a dynamic player in our nation's economic life.

When we talked, Sims talked about focusing on the poverty in White Center in southern, unincorporated King County, where 15% of families live in poverty vs. the King County average of 8%.

Bird Flu Preparation

The New York Times recently identified only two places in the country where bird flu pandemic preparation was coming along well: Seattle/King County and New York City.  Much of the good work done in this area is due to Sims’ ferocious awareness of the potential damage that this looming pandemic could cause and his support of key local specialists, like Jeff Duchan, chief of infection control for the Seattle-King County Public Health Department.

Recent research from Emory University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory indicates that eighty thousand people would be sick in the Seattle area within two months of an outbreak and 1-in-10 of them might need to be hospitalized.

In January, NPR had a program discussing what the Seattle/King County area has been doing in terms of preparation.  From a transcript of that show:

For some time now officials there have been making the rounds of health care facilities, businesses and schools, warning about the scope of a potential flu pandemic. They've also been talking about and what might be done to minimize illness, death and social disruption. Their master plan, just released, is based roughly on the deadly flu pandemic of 1918.

Sims assumes the region will be on its own, partly because every city and town in America would be dealing with its own flu problems.

So back to the preparation that Sims is famous for. In November, the Seattle & King County Public Health Department put up a local response plan on the Internet.  The plan, which will be updated regularly, involves health care providers, emergency service providers, businesses, schools and local governments.

Note: I will be putting up some additional information about both King County’s preparation for bird flu and recommendations for us as families.

In the Tradition of Good Government

Sims sees himself as part of a line of politician-activists who have been a big difference in the life of this area.  Sims lives with his family in the Mt. Baker area and appreciates that Lake Washington is in the wonderful condition it is today.
He talked about the battles that Jim Ellis, the chair of Forward Thrust, had in cleaning up pollution-choked Lake Washington, creating Metro Transit and putting a “lid” on top of Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle.  Sims says those are similar to battles he has waged to make sure that when people look back, they are pleased with what they see.
I suspect that Sims’ legacy will be seen as being equally critical to the long-range livability of the King County region. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on March 28, 2006 at 02:54 PM in Interviews | Permalink


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Ron Sims and George W. Bush are similar in that the both want to create wealth. Sims wants to create wealth for the general community, while Bush wants to do the same, but for friends and family.

Posted by: Will | Mar 29, 2006 12:46:06 AM

Ron Sims is a treasure. We are so lucky to have him leading us in King County. The more I have looked into what he has done for this area -- and by extension -- for our state and country, the more relieved I have felt -- as if we've dodged numerous bullets/possible bad outcomes. Sims is an example of how one person can have a huge impact.

I went to that Climate Change conference by the way, and wrote it up for Washblog: http://washblog.typepad.com/main/2005/10/climate_change_.html

The criticisms of Sims -- that he has not understood voting integrity issues as he should have (Diebold), that KC agencies haven't worked as well as they should have, etc. have some merit. But, compared to the work he's been doing, they seem somehow ungracious unless they are made with a recognition of what his leadership has meant for us. Who is perfect?

Many of the progressive bloggers I think do understand this. David Goldstein over at Horsesass.com is a notable example. What David did in publishing the information about what's his name -- Sims' opponent in the last election -- and his writing on Sims' work -- may have tipped the balance in that election and saved us from a very bad result here. Thank you, David! In contrast, look at the approach of Sims' Green Party challenger toward him (and anyone else who would even question him at all about voting issues).


Lynn, this post is so helpful. It helps fill that gap of recognition/acknowledgement that Sims is due. Without him, King County and Washington would be very different.

Posted by: Noemie Maxwell | Mar 30, 2006 1:44:34 PM

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