Friday, January 18, 2013

Puget Sound Partnership Seeks New Director

"...this transition will provide yet another opportunity for the Partnership to evolve...." says Col. Anthony Wright in his farewell letter.

by Janine Unsoeld

In what turned out to be one of his last Puget Sound Partnership meetings, the executive director, retired Col. Anthony Wright excused himself about 3:00 p.m. yesterday to meet with newly sworn-in Governor Jay Inslee and state agency directors.

At about 3:40 p.m., an assistant to Wright issued a press release from Wright saying that it was time for him to move on, and get back to his company, Normandeau Associates, thus ending his seven month tenure as head of the agency tasked with restoring the health of Puget Sound. Wright accepted the temporary appointment when Governor Gregoire asked him to take the job, and agency staff have known for about two weeks that he was leaving.

Explaining Wright's departure from the agency, the Partnership's public information director Alicia Lawver said this afternoon, "Tony had a personal commitment to former Governor Gregoire...he's been fantastic, and a champion for Puget Sound. He will continue on for the transition. He's committed to stay for a few weeks until a replacement is found...."

Governor Inslee's communications director, David Postman, said in a telephone interview this afternoon that a recruitment notice for a new director of the agency was posted and interviews for a new director may start as soon as next week.

"My understanding is that when Governor Gregoire asked him to serve, he always knew he was going to go back to his previous job, and he let Governor Inslee know that at least several weeks ago. It wasn't a surprise. A decision will be made with the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership and they think they have some great candidates," said Postman. Postman declined to name the candidates.

Says Wright in his farewell letter to the agency and Puget Sound partners,"While a change in leadership is never easy, this transition will provide yet another opportunity for the Partnership to evolve. Over the years, each of the Partnership’s executive directors has brought a different talent and provided enduring contributions that continue to propel the Partnership and its mission forward....The Partnership’s next leader inherits a solid foundation for action and I look forward to seeing this essential work continue to build momentum."

This reporter last spoke with Wright in November at a meeting of the Thurston County League of Women Voters, saying that when he interviewed with Governor Gregoire for the position, he eagerly told her he was going to "break some plates." She reportedly responded, dryly, "Well, how about you just chip them a little."

Whether Wright broke any plates, chipped them a little, or even had a chance to get them out of the cupboard is debatable, but his shoes yesterday, usually black and shiny, did exhibit quite a bit of mud.

The Partnership's Advisory Boards

Efforts to clean up Puget Sound has a long history. The Partnership group strives to work on an action agenda to prioritize Puget Sound cleanup and improvement projects, and work cooperatively to coordinate federal, state, local, tribal and private resources. The website says that they will base their decisions on science and focus on actions that have the biggest impact, and hold people and organizations accountable for the results.

Governor Gregoire's politically appointed seven member Leadership Council chose a science panel, composed of nine scientists, who report to the Council.

Another board, the Ecosystem Coordination Board, also advises the Council. This board is made up of 27 individuals representing the interests of federal government, tribal government, the state departments of Health, Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, Ecology, ports, cities, counties, and environmental and business. Environmental interests are represented by the Washington Environmental Council and the Nature Conservancy. Business interests are represented by the Master Builders and Taylor Shellfish.

In typical acronym laded, state agency-ese, upcoming work plans were outlined by several entities as they gave 20 minute presentations on how they propose spending their allocated budgets to benefit Puget Sound. Some participants questioned how some multi-year, multi-phase efforts can keep up with emerging issues and solve big, overall problems. Concern was also raised on how to communicate regional success stories to local governments and encourage restoration efforts in counties with low resources.

At Thursday's Ecosystem Coordination Board, Wright stayed most of the day, participating in conversations about the the struggle of convincing private property owners against the hard armoring of shorelines, despite their having properly issued permits that allow it, and the delicate tightrope the agency must walk when dealing with legislators.

With the legislative session and Governor Inslee's term now underway, the group discussed the legislative process and basic questions of how to stay in touch with each other and how often. With the infrequency of meetings (the last meeting was held in late October) and the time staff spent in rebuilding their website, the group sounded like it was behind the eight ball.

Potential conflicts of interest were also discussed as some board members may also serve as lobbyists for their interests or in the case of agency representatives, it is inappropriate for them to push the Partnership agenda.

"We all have lobbyists up there - I'd rather know where the third rail is before I touch it, whether to intervene or stay away from it. Knowing this on a real time basis would be helpful," said Sam Anderson, who represents the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

"Welcome to my world," responded Linda Owens, legislative assistant to Senator Christine Rolfes, (D-23rd, Bainbridge Island). "The word of the week is interesting....a lot of changes, new committee names, staff being shifted's very busy. I'm sort of optimistic, maybe this is a persistent and carry on. Be as persistent as you need to - we're here if you need us."

As the conversation continued about how to proceed with a proactive agenda, Wright said, as if to explain his limitations and soon-to-be departure, "You'll see us not say certain things because we're a state agency. The Governor told me to do this, and I went for it...but there are gaps that are relatively obvious, but we'll be concurrent with the Governor. We need to get in there, with everybody, and make sure they know who we are...."

How that happens, and with whom as executive director, remains to be seen. Let's hope he or she doesn't mind getting a little mud on their shoes as they hit the ground running.

 The next meeting of the Ecosystem Coordination Board will be Thursday, March 21 in the General Administration Building on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. For more information about the Puget Sound Partnership, go to