Puget Partnership sees another leadership change

I have to admit that I was surprised when Tony Wright, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, announced last week that he would soon be leaving to return to private consulting. But I suppose I have only myself to blame.

I went back and looked at former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s announcement (PDF 127 kb) of Tony’s appointment back in July. She clearly stated: “I thank Normandeau Associates for graciously loaning Tony, and appreciate Tony’s willingness to serve in this role.”

I don’t know why, but I never asked how long he was committed to staying, and nobody else brought up the issue.

I became distracted by more than a few people who talked about Tony’s prospects for staying in the post regardless of the governor’s election. He was seen as a person who could fit into a Republican administration if Rob McKenna were elected, and Jay Inslee had no immediate plans to shake up the agency. (Kitsap Sun, Nov. 15, 2012)

Behind the scenes, Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the partnership’s Leadership Council, was pushing for Tony to stay on, as she confirmed to me last week as I prepared to write the story about Tony Wright’s departure. (Kitsap Sun, Jan. 18, 2013)

Neither Wright nor the governor emphasized the short-term nature of the job “which would make me a lame duck the day I started,” Tony explained to me.

So we now come to the understanding that another director of the partnership must be hired. Martha says the new hire must possess many of the qualities that Tony Wright brought to the job. Here’s how she put it:

“Tony was the right guy at the right time. He got people’s attention, and in some ways he articulates how to get the work done. Tony can talk to anyone, from the oil industry to the environmental community. The next leader has to have that same kind of fluency.”

The first director of the partnership, David Dicks, put the fledgling agency on the map. He reached out to communities across the state and got everyone involved. He worked with the Legislature. But he was not as focused on the inner workings of the partnership, and some mandated deadlines were missed. Some financial accounting mistakes were made.

The second director, Gerry O’Keefe, focused intently on getting the staff up to speed on the work products demanded of the agency, and they were numerous — from ecosystem indicators to a Science Update to a new Action Agenda.

Tony helped complete work on the Action Agenda and reorganized the staff while reaching outside the agency to plan a strategy for getting the work done at the federal, state and local levels. The agency’s organizational chart (PDF 680 kb) shows clearer lines of authority, with much of the staff focused on implementing the various plans.

Still, the partnership has not fully developed the administrative structure envisioned by the Legislature, according to a new report by staff of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee. What is needed is a clear understanding of what a healthy Puget Sound would look like, along with measurable goals to achieve that condition and an accounting of how various actions can contribute to those goals. See today’s Kitsap Sun or review the draft JLARC report for yourself.

The Legislative mandate sounds simple enough, but the job becomes exceedingly complex as one delves into it. First, there’s the question of what a health Puget Sound would look like.

Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society, who chaired the Puget Sound Science Panel last year, once compared a healthy ecosystem to a healthy person. Do you want the person to be healthy enough to walk around and hopefully avoid a heart attack, or do you want him to be prepared to run a marathon?

The Puget Sound ecosystem will never be as vigorous and dynamic as it was in its “youth” before development, and perhaps avoiding collapse is the first step on the way to a healthy ecosystem. This issue deserves a wider discussion among the people who live here. What are our “alternative futures” for Puget Sound? Can we discuss what it will take to change the present course to varying degrees?

We also need a greater understanding about the connections between land and water at various depths, the behavioral relationships among species, the energy pathways in the food web and much more. Scientists are beginning to come to grips with these issues, but the science must make its way into policy decisions and become accessible to you and me.

The “links” between actions and progress toward a healthy ecosystem could be better understood, and researchers need to measure the success of restoration projects so that funding agencies can replicate what is working.

Puget Sound Partnership is making progress. If the legislative mandate does not recognize the complexity of the task, maybe it is time to refine our expectations written into law. Maybe it is time to have a broad discussion about what the partnership has accomplished and what is yet to be done.

It is equally important to remember, however, that the partnership is a coordinating agency. The work itself gets done by numerous government agencies and by many other groups — including what people do in their own backyards.

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