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Musings on Local Government and Governance

By Jim McEntire, Commissioner, Clallam County

I've lived in many states and metropolitan areas throughout our country; some small, some large, some rural, some urban ... but nowhere with a system of local governance as fragmented as that of Washington State. Fragmented or integrated really doesn't matter in my view — neither is better or worse — local government remains closest to the people no matter what the structure. But local governance in a reasonably well coordinated and well integrated way is obviously more of a challenge in a state like ours.

It strikes me that people, at least in my county, like what I call “a-la-carte” government. They appreciate voting for or against taxes for a specific, well-defined, intuitively satisfying purpose: a fire or emergency services levy, a library levy, a hospital levy, a park district levy to keep a well loved piece of community infrastructure in operation (a community swimming pool, for instance). Problem is, there is no local government entity charged with ensuring that the entire community economy can withstand the aggregate economic demand occasioned by the total level of property taxation; and certainly there is no one governmental body charged with ensuring the public knows of all the trade-off decisions inherent in making their choice to vote in favor of or against any one given levy.

On one level, that's just the way it should be: citizens make their own individual judgments about what they are willing to pay for. But on the other hand, general purpose governments — cities and counties — have a much harder time justifying general purpose levies. Perhaps that's as it should be also. General purpose governments handle the “meat and potatoes” of government and generally don't attract the everyday notice of citizens unless something goes wrong, or unless there is a big financial or project decision in the offing. A relatively small percentage of our population interacts with law enforcement or the court system. If the roads are pretty much pothole-free, the trash is picked up regularly, and whatever snow falls is dealt with efficiently, we pretty much hum along under the radar so to say.

In some cases, there are regional councils that function in a way as either a regional government or at least a regional council so that all the pieces and parts of local governance at least have a chance at integration. I'm thinking here of the Puget Sound Regional Council, the Franklin-Benton County Council of Governments, and the Grays Harbor Council of Government. In my mind, at this point in my experience, there is no one right answer. For sure, inside county government, and especially in my county's case with the only elected Director of Community Development in the entire nation, county governance must be similar to the relationships that exist in a college faculty. We are all a part of the same government (university), we all have different roles to play, and none of us get to “supervise” or “control” the other.

All of this certainly keeps boredom away from my door. It's a fascinating thing to manage within a web of peer relationships, keep the ship reasonably on course, continuously define the public interest and govern with that in mind, and still be friends at the end of the day.

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About Jim McEntire

Jim McEntire writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Jim McEntire serves in his first term as a Clallam County Commissioner, representing the east end of Clallam County. He and his wife live north of Sequim. In prior lives, he retired after 28 years as a U.S. Coast Guard officer, ten years of which were at sea in six ships, commanding the last three. After retirement from the Coast Guard, he had further service as a career civilian in three Federal cabinet departments (Transportation, Labor, and Homeland Security), retiring from the Senior Executive Service. In Clallam County, he has served as a Commissioner for the Port of Port Angeles in addition to his current office.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.