A Louder Rahr

The sheriff is rallying rural troops in her battle with Ron Sims.

After listening to Sheriff Sue Rahr describe all the ways people in unincorporated King County will lose police protection due to a severe budget cut next year, Bette Filley of High Valley raised her hand: "I think the number-one job of government is to protect the people and I think Ron Sims is wrong," she declared. Filley was met with a round of applause from the 70 people packed into a Maple Valley library classroom and shouts of "Tell Ron Sims!" Rahr clasped her hands and smiled, thanking Filley for saying so.It didn't take much effort for Rahr to rile up some anti-Sims sentiment. This audience arrived in cowboy hats and jeans; one person drove in with a car sporting a square-dancing vanity plate. People in rural, unincorporated areas laughingly call the King County leadership the Seattle City Council II. Sims and his allies on the council are more than happy to regulate and tax their property, they say. But requests for better garbage or policing are met with silence.So when Rahr told them at the June 26 gathering that because the Executive's office couldn't manage a budget, her deputies would no longer investigate property crimes under $10,000, the reaction was instantaneous."As soon as that gets out, we're all gonna get robbed!" one man cried out. Rahr promised she would cut everything else just to make sure that when they called 911 a deputy still showed up, but beyond that, there was little she could do. "I feel like I have to choose between brakes and a steering wheel for my car," she said, adding that while dire cuts are predicted, Sims will make the final recommendations, so people should feel free to flood his e-mail inbox with their frustrations. Someone wrote that address on the board along with contact info for the rest of the council.Rahr's "Ron Sims Is Screwing You" tour is the latest in a series of escalating shots traded between the Sheriff and the Executive as they each gear up for possible reelection bids next year. After criticisms were raised, in the first year of Rahr's tenure, about problem deputies operating with little supervision and no accountability, both leaders were quick to blame the other. Now what began as a series of passive-aggressive policy shots—last fall, the Executive called for the Sheriff to become an appointed position, while the Sheriff said she couldn't do anything to curb abusive deputies because of the union contract negotiated by Sims—has turned into an open political fight to ensure the other has to take the heat when voters go to the polls.It wasn't always like this. In 2005, Sims was seeking his third term at the helm of county government. Rahr had been appointed to replace Dave Reichert, off to Congress, and was campaigning for a chance at a four-year stint. There was no evidence at the time of any tension between the two. Rahr and her husband together had donated $150 to Sims's campaign. (It was the second-biggest donation they made in local races that year. King County Prosecutor candidate Dan Satterberg got the most from the Rahrs, $235.)But then the Post-Intelligencer began a series called "Conduct Unbecoming" about problem deputies who held onto their jobs or walked away with generous retirement packages.Within a month of Rahr's winning the top cop spot, with more than 77 percent of the vote, Sims took a shot at her in an interview with the P-I, telling her to "weed her garden."Rahr responded by putting the blame for problem deputies at the feet of their Sims-negotiated union contracts, which she says makes firing or even disciplining officers nearly impossible.Reports of deputies facing allegations, of criminal activity, or even convictions, but keeping their jobs, or walking away with generous severance packages, prompted the County Council to convene a panel. Its task: find ways to make it easier to control officers and punish those who step out of line. In 2007, the panel gave Rahr a list of 36 things necessary to make the department run smoothly and ethically, but many of those suggestions required an OK from the union. And she's not the one negotiating with the guild. Sims is.Even on the things she could do to improve the department, Rahr says she's coming up against a block from the Executive. She says $750,000 was put in reserve by the County Council as part of the 2007 budget to hire more supervisors. But money in reserve has to be released by the Executive, and Rahr claims that when she started asking for the cash, she was told it was no longer available.County Budget Director Bob Cowan says that money remains in reserve for the Sheriff. County Assistant Executive Sheryl Whitney says that due to the current crunch, everyone who would normally be getting extra cash from Sims' office is being asked to evaluate whether or not they really need it.Once every 10 years, the County Council appoints a commission to review the King County charter and propose any changes or amendments. Last fall, Rahr and Sims took their fight to the commission."As you all know, we have the highest respect for the sheriff," began Sims' chief of staff, Kurt Triplett. (Two months earlier, he had asked the commission to consider returning the top cop to an appointed position rather than an elected one.) Then he asked that they not grant her request for additional control over union negotiations.Rahr, too, tried to be nice, saying her problem was with the structure that made managing her department difficult, not the man. But when the commission took a break and stopped tape-recording the session, Rahr was overheard telling one commissioner that "when the shit hits the fan" she was left alone to take responsibility for the lack of discipline, "while Sims is slinging arrows."Neither leader got what they wanted out of the process—the Sheriff will still be chosen by voters and the Executive will still have control over bargaining.Sims and Rahr returned to their corners for a few months to regroup. But then the fight really began to crescendo this spring, when Sims' budget office announced a 2009 deficit. By May, the Executive's budget office was predicting a $68 million shortfall in the general fund, and Budget Director Cowan speculated at a June 23 meeting that it may go higher. Whitney says the deficit is due to a 2001 Eyman initiative limiting county property-tax hikes to one percent and to a slowing economy. Revenues are just rising slower than the cost of the running the county, she says.The Sheriff, along with Superior Court, the jail, and the rest of the justice-related county departments, are funded by the general fund. Sims told them they would be looking at nearly 9 percent cuts across the board. That was enough to win Rahr some vocal allies. On June 5, Rahr, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer, and District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde released a joint report titled "Public Safety in Peril."Each department listed ways in which a 9 percent cut would impact them. Rahr says she would have to cut 100 deputies, stop investigating property crimes under $10,000, drop cold cases, and make nonviolent crimes like forgery and identity theft less of a priority. The prosecutor's office would start classifying crimes normally charged as felonies as misdemeanors so they could be kicked to municipal courts. Satterberg says he would also have to cut 30 prosecutors. The courts would drop alternative-justice programs like the drug and mental-health courts designed to get people into treatment."It's real, what's coming at us, and the worst part is that there's no hope in the picture," Satterberg said in an interview last week, referring to a section of the joint agency report which shows that county residents can expect additional cuts beyond 2009. "Any agency can tighten their belt for a year and weather a storm. But when the storm never stops, you have a real problem." Unlike Rahr, Satterberg doesn't blame Sims, instead saying the state legislature needs to give the county the ability to collect a utility tax, or something similar. He says he and Sims have been petitioning for it, but in a big election year, he doesn't expect anyone in Olympia to fall on their sword for it.Incorporated cities that contract with King County to provide policing, such as SeaTac and Shoreline, will not lose service, since those contracts are actually profitable for the Sheriff. But this difference only further inflames rural residents' aggrievement. Bette Filley says when times get tough, people in unincorporated areas are always left behind. With relatively little voting power, and only two council members—Kathryn Lambert, R-Redmond, and Reagan Dunn, R-Bellevue—representing significant swaths of rural areas, there just isn't much political interest.Rahr says that's why people need to start flooding Sims' inbox with demands that he maintain service. She told the crowd that when people piped up following news reports about problems with the county animal shelter, almost $1 million suddenly materialized to deal with the problems there.As the Maple Valley meeting drew to a close, Rob Lowen, a retiree in unincorporated Fairwood, raised his hand and posed the next logical question to Rahr. "You ever think of running for Ron Sims' office?" he asked. "You seem to care about us more than he does."Rahr laughed and responded: "You're my bosses and I have an obligation to serve you."Asked later if her non-denial meant she was thinking about taking a run at Sims, already facing a likely challenge from county council member Larry Phillips, she waved her hands. "No, no, no. I should have made that clear."lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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