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August 16, 2006

Gregoire’s Town Hall Meeting in Everett

Chris Gregoire came to Everett Monday evening to listen to her constituents, 500 of whom were interested in sharing their thoughts and complaints and solutions with her.  This was the fifth and last of this series, although both Gregoire and the folks in the room seemed to get so much out of it that Gregoire promised there would be more.  Prior to this, she had been to Spokane, Pasco, Vancouver and Puyallup. 

Gregoire opened by saying, “We are preparing our budget and would like to listen to you about where you think tax payer dollars should be spent.  Secondly, how would you define success?  For example, if you say you want ‘better education’, does that mean more students going to college, trade school, or the ability of our graduates to get good paying jobs?  What does it mean to you?”

She stood on a dais in the middle of the room, pivoting regularly to listen to people from every side or ask a follow up question or, when she couldn’t help herself, to offer an explanation.  Mostly she listened and then asked an aide to take a person’s name or written statement.    

A moderator, Steve Becker of Spokane, called on person after person and stood with them as they read their statement or asked a question or offered a suggestion for getting to the point. Occasionally he would prod them a bit to move to answer the question of the evening, “What would success look like to you?”  It was a smart question; it moved the requestor toward the solution rather than the problem and allowed the questioner to be a part of the solution. 

I was humbled and moved by what people talked about and by Gregoire’s responses.   People were totally respectful and sincere.  Many began by praising what Gregoire had already done – in beginning to work on cleaning up Puget Sound or in getting a start on providing healthcare to all the children of Washington State.  But they wanted more.  The fact that their governor was coming to listen to them brought out the most basic of requests for a government that functioned better. 

I came away with a strong sense that people believe in government and its ability to make a difference in their lives; they just want it to function better.  More after the fold.  Also, more in the Everett Herald in a piece by Jerry Cornfield.

There were several consistent themes.  At least three times, people stood to talk about their difficulties in getting the various levels of local government to observe the tenets of the Growth Management Act (GMA).  One woman who co-chairs a citizen group to preserve a wetlands area around Lake Stickney, said that her group had been diligent in working to prevent irresponsible development and had been successful so far but didn’t think they could continue to hold off development in the face of a lack of funding from local government to buy up the remaining open land.

Gregoire asked the woman and the group of people who had accompanied her if the GMA is working for them.  They said that the zoning requirements of the GMA were good but it didn’t work when the developers can target a particular piece of land and change the zoning on it.  Another person who brought up the GMA issue said, “success looks like getting what GMA says needs to be in place before the developments are built”.

The governor broadened the question out to the audience, asking how many people thought that the GMA was working.  One person raised his hand.  She asked how many thought it wasn’t.  Maybe 60% of the people in the room raised their hands. 

A couple speakers talked about salmon preservation and the need long term for sufficient quantities of clean water.  They praised the governor’s leadership on the Puget Sound Initiative and reiterated the need to continue.  Gregoire mentioned that 97% of the people they’d asked, said that we need to leave Puget Sound as clean as healthy as we found it.  But most people don’t know how sick it has become.

There were several different people who spoke about the difficulties in getting state help for children with developmental disabilities.  Each person spoke of their personal tribulations and of what would be helpful to them in dealing with children or grandchildren with special needs – programs for older children and nurses in the schools to dispense medication, for example.

Gregoire said she understands and has been asking what can be done, given the constraints of the budget.  She said that she has a cousin who is developmentally disabled.  She is her guardian.  She will see what the agencies can do.

A woman with a son with a disability said that there is not sufficient federal funding to support “No Child Left Behind” Act.  It was very clear that Gregoire wanted to discuss the difficulties of dealing with the federal government’s unfunded mandates but she reminded herself that her job this evening was just to listen.

There was a lot of concern from several different people in the room about the Monroe Correctional Facility.  The mayor of Monroe, Donetta Walser, talked about the need to have a vibrant early education program to prevent young people from winding up in a correctional facility.  It was just such a waste of a young life and of the money it takes to keep young ones there.  One woman who had retired said that the pay was way too low.  They couldn’t keep good people.  Another woman, who happened to be sitting right next to the first, spoke about the shortage of nurses there, again, because of the low wages.  People simply didn’t stay long.

Gregoire agreed, saying that the State paid 42% under the going rate for nurses.  She has been focused on raising pay for nurses, correctional officers and highway safety officers.

Later, a man who identified himself as a guard there, said that, in addition to the low pay, the facility had closed the sleeping quarters for the guards, something they needed desperately when they pulled double shifts. 

It was a touching experience, over and over again.  I had planned to ask the governor about something myself but I could not bring myself to interrupt the flow of very personal needs from the many dozens of people who wanted to speak, to talk about something as conceptual as campaign finance reform or citizen-sponsored legislation, important and relevant as I believe those to be.

The mayor of Monroe had also spoken about the dangers of Highway 2.  There had been a double fatality on a stretch of the road near Monroe that very day.  When pressed for what success would look like, she said, “I don’t want to look in the newspaper and find that someone has been killed on Highway 2.”  She and the Governor talked about the increase in traffic that would surely occur when the Olympics are held in Vancouver in 2008. 

A man talked about the need for more good jobs in Snohomish County so people wouldn’t have to drive into King County.  Gregoire said she’s been working on bringing more jobs into the area with her trade missions but also said we need rapid transit along the I-5 corridor through Pierce, King and Snohomish counties to help alleviate the congestion.

A blind man talked about the difficulties of walking and busing without sufficient walking paths, sidewalks and buses.  The Governor agreed and talked about the need for more bus lanes, more HOV lanes, more attention to pedestrian needs and more rapid transit.

Several people talked about the need for better healthcare in the state.  Two different people used the Governor’s success, while Attorney General, in obtaining the National Tobacco settlement as a model.  Much more needs to be done about any number of other healthcare issues.  When asked, one man said, “Success looks like sufficient healthcare for every one in this state.”  The Governor agreed.   She said her goal was to make sure every citizen has access to quality healthcare.

Several people talked about the difficulties that people living in mobile homes had when the mobile home park was sold, which has been happening with increasing frequency lately.  One man, President of a small mobile home part association, talked about the difficulty for the owners of the individual mobile homes in those cases.  There is state money provided for relocation expenses but not nearly enough.  It can take 3-4 years to get relocation money from the state. 

Gregoire agreed, saying the state legislature will have to step up and provide more money for that fund.

It went on and on, way past the designated time to end.  There was a woman who talked about the Falun Gong movement and human rights issues in China.  An advocate of single-payer healthcare spoke of the lower costs for such a national or statewide program.  A long-time medical practitioner talked about the need for acceptance of holistic health practitioners and the need to have a different commission for medical doctors than for holistic medicine practitioners.  The manager of a residential home talked about how difficult it is to hire and retain residential home care workers. Another member of a citizens’ group, this time for St. Andrew’s State Park in Snohomish County, said that the Parks Commission is considering putting up a hotel in the 316 acre open green space. The man said that, “success would be a letter from her office asking for a postponement for two years to rethink this plan.”  Gregoire took his name, saying that her husband, Mike, who was in the audience along with his mother, had told her the same thing a few days earlier.

Homecare givers, wearing SEIU-purple shirts, asked for the Governor’s support for legislation requiring better training for homecare givers.  A woman from tribe where Everett is now located asked that information on Indo-Americans be placed back in state history books.  As she had with many folks before, Gregoire thanked the woman for coming and agreed that it was time to provide more recognition of the history and  language of the native Americans. 

Lee Lambert, the President of Shoreline Community College, asked that there not be another 4-year college here or anywhere, Snohomish County being one of the next likely places to put one.  There is not enough money to go around to all the state educational institutions as it is, he said.  Gregoire said that Washington State is #5 in the nation in the number of graduates from trade and community colleges but only #26 in the number of graduates from 4-year colleges.  She said that we would have to change that if we are going to educate the number of students for technical jobs that we would like.  Then Gregoire turned to the audience and asked how many of then wanted another 4-year college, this time in Snohomish County.  About half the audience raised their hands.

Near the end, a man asked about the Governor’s thought on I-933, the initiative on the ballot that would instill utter confusion into the planning process statewide.  Gregoire said that the initiative had been patterned after a similar one in Oregon, although the one here was broader and more vague and could cause difficulties not just with real property but with any kind of property, intellectual or real.  She went on to say that Oregon has lawsuit after lawsuit over the requirements of the initiative.  She said she doesn’t want to spend valuable taxpayer money on fighting those suits.  “I am absolutely opposed to 933.”  There was wild applause from the audience.

Lastly, Governor Gregoire asked people to indicate which of three priorities was most important to them.  The three were healthcare, education and jobs.  Each person can only vote once.  As she called out the possibilities, it looked to me like it was about 45% for healthcare, 45% for education and 10% for jobs. 

The Governor then thanked folks for attending and said she appreciates how active the citizenry is in this state. “We’ve turned the economy around.  We’re beginning to invest.  We’ve got a distance to go.  I love this state.  What we want will happen only if we as citizens stay involved.  Thanks.” 

Posted by Lynn Allen on August 16, 2006 at 08:29 AM in Best Practices, Strategery | Permalink

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