The PSP Interviews: Sen. Phil Rockefeller

When I wrote my recent progress report on the Puget Sound Partnership, my story included little more than brief quotes and snippits of information from a variety of informed people. It is somewhat rewarding to have a blog where I can bring you more complete impressions of the people I interviewed. Here is the fourth in a series of expanded reports from those interviews.

State Sen. Phil Rockefeller is closely associated with the unique structure of the Puget Sound Partnership, with its three governing panels and a carrot-and-stick approach that does not rely on regulatory authority.

Rockefeller grew up in New York and graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School. After active duty in the Air Force, he moved to Washington state and served in the legal department of the Weyerhaeuser Company.

In 1967, Rockefeller took a staff job with Congress , serving with the House Committee on Education and Labor. From there, he went to the executive branch in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, returning to Washington state with the federal agency in 1970. His positions included regional commissioner for the U.S. Office of Education and regional administrator for the Office of Student Financial Assistance.

Phil worked as an education aide for Gov. John Spellman from 1981 to 1984, then returned to the U.S. Department of Education until his retirement in 1994.

Rockefeller served in the state House of Representatives from 1999 to 2005 and then was elected to the Senate, where he is serving his second term. He chairs the Environment, Water and Energy Committee.

After creation of the partnership in 2007, Phil was appointed to serve as the Democratic senator on the Ecosystem Coordination Board. (The Republican senator position was recently filled by Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.)

Phil told me in our interview that he still supports the idea behind the Puget Sound Partnership, which is that good things can happen if smart people work together.

“I still believe it’s a good model,” he said. “It focuses on collaboration. We should not have a super agency that does everything.”

In my review of the partnership, I did not focus on public education, saving that for another story. But Sen. Rockefeller says an informed public is an important key to success:

“To be successful, the public needs to understand the challenges and the priorities as well as the progress and any issues that have arisen in trying to make progress. The only way this can succeed is if the public is well informed. It’s a huge task to do the outreach.

“It is a challenge, in part, because of the budget situation. When you talk about organized outreach, some people want to chop that off. I can understand that. But if they do, they need to find other ways to communicate with the public.”

Rockefeller is more sensitive than most when it comes to the structure of the partnership. After all, he has explained it time and again. As I quoted him in my story:

“To this day, critics of the partnership complain that it is another regulatory agency. I’m tired of hearing people trash the partnership when it has no such power.”

Rockefeller did say he is looking forward to seeing the performance audit at the end of the year by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which could be followed by a legislative discussion about how to revise the structure and function of the partnership.

“I think it may be time to do a legislative review to see if we’ve given them more than they can chew. It is a huge task we have given them. Maybe we can simplify things in some way now that we have an Action Agenda.”

It’s worth pointing out that the original legislation suggested that the Puget Sound Partnership would identify “partners,” which would be governments, agencies and organizations that prove they can get the job done. Partners would have a leg up on getting funding for their projects.

The legislation also includes a process for identifying governments and agencies failing to carry out their responsibilities. An appeals process is included to make sure that such groups are treated fairly.

Some of these finer tools provided to the partnership have not yet been employed. I expect they will make their way into the light of day in the next year or so or else be refined or eliminated during the legislative review.

Phil said last year’s audit by the Washington State Auditor’s Office, along with stories surrounding it, was a setback for the credibility of the partnership.

“I think it suffered a bit in the closing months of the previous director (David Dicks), because of some issues raised in association with his actions. But they were more personal than institutional. I think the agency has taken steps to correct the flaws and defects that came out of that.”

In the end, he said, the audit process did the correct job of bringing problems out into the light and getting them corrected. The partnership is now back on track, he said, and is producing solid information needed for the restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

One thought on “The PSP Interviews: Sen. Phil Rockefeller

  1. ““To be successful, the public needs to understand the challenges and the priorities as well as the progress and any issues that have arisen in trying to make progress. The only way this can succeed is if the public is well informed.”

    YES! Don’t tell me – a wise comment from a Senator – especially one from New York City – right here!

    Yes, inform us – don’t relish in keeping us ignorant, then complain about our lack of ability to understand.

    The same problem exists in health care… or did. Maybe educating the patient is beginning to take hold there too.

    Thank you, Senator! Sharon O’Hara

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