A Big SWAT for Ron Sims

The King County election task force report delivers a blow.

There's only one thing more annoying than spam from state Republican Party Chair Chris Vance. That's an e-mail in which his partisan bloviation is essentially correct.

Last week, the King County Independent Task Force on Elections released its final report and recommendations on the county election system.

The local media tended to focus on the task force's recommendations regarding how to run future elections, from all-mail voting to switching to a June primary to putting elections under the head of an elected auditor, as most counties in the state do. As worthy of discussion as these recommendations are, what is truly striking is how devastating the report is to County Executive Ron Sims and his embattled sidekick, Dean Logan, who heads the Records, Elections, and Licensing Services Division.

You wouldn't have known that from their reactions. Each issued a press release indicating the task force's report was welcome. Sims, who handpicked its members, thanked them for their hard work. Logan's said that the task force's ideas are worth "reviewing" and "should be carefully considered," but he went on to say that he's in the middle of preparing for another election, work he and the staff "can't be pulled away from." In other words, don't bug me now. I'm working on the next debacle.

So it was refreshing to hear Vance get to the point: His press release was titled "King County Elections puts blame where it belongs: on Ron Sims' shoulders."

When Sims created the task force last spring, he said that he "expected they would deliver both roses and thorns." But after reading their report, I'd characterize it as a bouquet of devil's club.

The only task-force roses are these: First, it finds Logan to be ethical and knowledgeable about the technical aspects of elections—a functionary, not a manager. Two, the staff is generally well-intended and dedicated (if unhappy, poorly trained, and unfairly treated). And three, the report offered Sims a fig leaf of sorts. Instead of insisting on the outright re-election-year firing of the miscast Logan—the guy Sims had previously brought in to fix everything—it suggests the county bring in a "turnaround" team to solve the election department's problems. It was described as a "SWAT team."

Now, why do you bring in a SWAT team? To free hostages from a maniac.

Maybe that's what it'll take. Sims "enthusiastically" endorses bringing in the SWATers, whoever they may be, though it's difficult to imagine how a temporary group of outside consultants will be able to effect the kind of organizational and systemic changes that the task force says are required. If anything, it allows Sims to avoid firing Logan now—and admitting that during his tenure, things have gotten worse, not better. Overwhelmingly, Logan's own staff describes an office that is going downhill despite Logan's good intentions because no one is skillfully managing the place. The task force notes that each election since 2000 has had serious problems, culminating in the public- confidence-busting fiasco of 2004.

In her cover letter to Sims accompanying the report, task force chair Cheryl Scott wrote, "Although events related to the 2004 elections have created a significant crisis in public confidence and trust, they are truly the symptom of problems that have evolved over many years. Given the number and chronic nature of the problems that have been revealed during the past four years, the task force's key finding is that there has been a failure of leadership and a breakdown in accountability."

Remember also that back in June, the task force's original findings were a scathing indictment of current management. They found the elections office to be "a seriously flawed organization," that staff morale was in the toilet, that senior management were terrible communicators and were distrusted by underlings. "A climate of fear" pervaded, they wrote. Bad hiring and promotion decisions were common; few checks and balances existed; management had no strategic plan for running the department. After the staff's no-confidence vote in Superintendent of Elections Bill Huennekens— delivered via a task-force survey of employees—the key figure in the 2004 election mess wasn't fired but was shuffled off to another elections job, a poster child for the office's lack of accountability.

Over and over, the task force has reiterated that King County's problems are the result of poor leadership. Who are the poor leaders? Sims and Logan. Where does the buck stop? With Sims.

How will Sims react? That's a concern. Talk with some of Sims' most ardent fans—staffers, former staffers, close political supporters—and they will acknowledge that the boss' charisma and energy are often undercut by his lack of focus, his poor hiring decisions, and his reluctance to fire people—a very Seattle trait. He's got a big heart, but it's no way to run a bureaucracy.

It's always tough for politicians to admit they're wrong. Doubly when you're running for re-election and your own task force has just handed you—albeit politely—a big sack of crow for you to eat. And triply when GOP partisans are using your screwups to push the candidacy of a dweeb like Dave Irons. But it would be foolish not to agree with the task force and Chris Vance that the elections department is broken and poorly managed and that, like it or not, the bread crumbs lead to Ron Sims' doorstep, a trail both the public—and a SWAT team—can easily follow.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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