Governor switches head of Puget Sound Partnership

I was reading my email Friday when a press release from the governor landed in my in-box.

It began, “Gov. Chris Gregoire today appointed retired Army Corps of Engineers Col. Anthony Wright to lead the Puget Sound Partnership.”

That’s strange, I thought. What happened to Gerry O’Keefe, who had served in the ranks of the partnership before being named interim director and then permanent director just 16 months ago.

What could O’Keefe have done to get fired so suddenly? There was no mention of O’Keefe until the last paragraph of the press release, where the governor stated:

“I thank Gerry O’Keefe for his work over the past year to lead this agency. He has thrown his heart and soul into the work of the partnership, and I wish him well.”

Before I wrote my story, I interviewed numerous people. As far as I could tell, O’Keefe’s departure came as a complete surprise to nearly all the staff at the partnership, to members of the Ecosystem Coordination Board and to others close to the agency.

The press release still leaves me wondering a bit, but I can thank Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, for speaking candidly to me about what happened. To summarize, Martha said the governor wanted a higher profile person in the post, someone who could have an impact with the Legislature; converse with federal, state and local entities; and connect with the public. Clearly, the governor would like the Puget Sound Partnership (“her baby,” Martha said) to survive and hopefully to thrive as a new governor comes on next year.

You can read Martha’s comments to me in the story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. Martha also prepared a written message for the Puget Sound Partnership’s website, recognizing O’Keefe’s contributions in more detail than the governor.

I could not reach O’Keefe Friday, so I can’t report how he’s taking the news, but Martha and others have told me that he is likely to take a job with the Washington Department of Ecology. No doubt the position will be less stressful.

As for Wright, everyone I have interviewed is impressed with his success as district engineer and commander for the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers. “I like him,” is a direct quote from several people.

I have never been formally introduced to Col. Wright, but I do recall his testimony before the Puget Sound Leadership Council about a year ago, when he told council members they need to get some “courage” in dealing with land-use issues, such as development along the shoreline. Of course, he realized that much shoreline development falls under the purview of cities and counties, but it is the job of the Puget Sound Partnership to push local governments to do the right thing for Puget Sound.

When I reached Tony Friday, he began with a few straight-laced comments, such as, “I am glad to join the team” and “Puget Sound has lots of big challenges.”

But when I reminded him of some of his more outspoken comments, he became a quotable figure, perhaps foreshadowing how he will communicate about Puget Sound — something many people agree needs to be brought to a new level. From my story:

“I’ve been told that I’m outspoken. It is time for some plain talk, because the sound has serious problems. Some people don’t think it does. Some people want to rearrange the deck chairs. That’s not my style…

“Some things are really challenging. Sometimes you have to embrace the porcupine.”

He also told me that, as an Army officer, he has tried to be apolitical, which could help him work across party lines on restoring Puget Sound and managing the partnership.

“I think the organization is important and has a really key role…,” he told me. “It will be a lot of fun.”

I’m glad he is bringing that kind of attitude to the Puget Sound Partnership. I’m looking forward to reporting on how Col. Anthony Wright leads the way.

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