Election Spotlight: Pierce County Executive

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Tacoma Daily Index, Exit 133, and KXOT-FM 91.7 have collaborated on a project to profile and interview each of the four candidates currently running for Pierce County Executive. The interviews will appear on the Web site and in the print edition of the Index, on the Web at http://www.exit133.com , and on http://www.kxot.org . The series began Sept. 11 with an interview with Tacoma City Councilmember Mike Lonergan. It continued Sept. 25 with Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy. Today we interview Pierce County Councilmember Calvin Goings.

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It’s safe to say Pierce County Councilmember Calvin Goings entered politics early.

He was elected as a Pierce County Fire District Commissioner in 1991, when he was 18. Four years later, the Puyallup native was appointed state Senator, and elected to the position the following year. It gave him the distinction of being the youngest senator in Washington State history.

In 2000, he was elected to Pierce County Council, and re-elected in 2004. He’s currently running for Pierce County Executive — a position held by John W. Ladenburg, who is term-limited and currently running for Washington State Attorney General.

Throughout his campaign, Goings’s criticism of county government has been frank. One area in his cross-hairs: Planning and Land Services. “I was born and raised in the South Hill area,” he says. “Anybody who has been out there will tell you that is the poster child of how not to do land use planning. No parks. The roads haven’t been widened. No sidewalks. No streetlights. No urban amenities that a growing area should expect.”

To that end, he has made it well known that if he is elected, he will fire the county’s current planning director and re-vamp the entire department. Other goals: sparking a green economy in Pierce County and consolidating the county’s governmental structure.

This election year, Goings is one of four candidates for the top county seat. The others include Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy, Pierce County Councilmember Shawn Bunney, and Tacoma City Councilmember Mike Lonergan.

“I think I’ve done some good things as a county councilmember,” he explains. “But the ability to be a county executive, to take those ideas that we’ve been able to do on a smaller level and apply that vision and leadership countywide, I think is a unique opportunity and one that I’m cautiously optimistic about.”

Goings recently discussed his candidacy, as well as his perspectives on a variety of issues this election year.


There has always been a calling in my life. I was always involved in student government. I was always involved in my community. I served as a fire commissioner, went to college, went to work for Key Bank. Then there was a vacancy in the local state Senate, a seat from my district. Marc Gaspard, who had been a long-time state senator from the Puyallup area, resigned. There was an appointment and I was appointed. I ran for the seat outright the following year and was elected. I served a full-term, so a total of five years, and then ran for county council. A lot of people ask, ‘Why did you leave the Senate? It seems like a kind of backwards trend.’ Frankly, being a fire district commissioner, that had a real tangible. You knew that when you were able to open another fire station or put another piece of equipment on the street or hire more firefighters, that had a real life tangible impact it made in your community. You could touch it, you could feel it. In the state Senate, I worked on some very important issues, but it was a couple steps removed from what real people were doing in their lives. So when there was an open seat on the county council, I jumped at the chance to kind of get my hands dirty again with local government.


These are some challenging times. What’s happening on Wall Street is affecting us in Pierce County. We’re seeing a slowdown in the economy here, and that means fewer dollars to invest in our community. The county executive was charged with a very difficult task of trying to balance the budget. The executive has recommended the elimination of 71 positions. I’m concerned about some of those. The philosophy I bring to my review — as a county councilmember, I’ll get to review the budget and adopt it at some point, and I’ll hopefully implement as county executive next year — is to hold public safety harmless. Pierce County still has an unacceptable crime rate, and we have an unacceptably low ratio of law enforcement officers to citizens in Pierce County. I’ve made the commitment through this budget and future budgets [that] as county executive I will not cut law enforcement officers. The current county executive has largely followed that philosophy as well. But I also think it’s not about who can cut the most. Everybody can cut. You will never cut your way out of a recession or out of a budget situation. You have to also make targeted investments. Investing now in early childhood education. Every study says that if a child is prepared to go to kindergarten and prepared to learn, they are more likely to stay in school, be a success, graduate on time, and be a contributing member of society. Studies also show if a child is not ready to learn, they get frustrated, they give up, and they eventually drop out. We can see that crisis in our criminal justice system. Folks say, ‘County government — what does that have to do with education?’ It has everything to do with education because the county runs the jail system in Pierce County. Whether you’re in the city or not in the city, it’s the county jail, it’s the county court system. The costs of incarcerating people are astronomical. Today in Pierce County there are several thousand children who qualify for Head Start [and similar programs] that can’t find a spot. That has to change. As county executive, that would be one of my top priorities. We should be doing more about it now, and that’s one of the things I’m going to be working on in the budget.


County executive is largely operated under a 1970s model. Today there are over 22 departments in county government, each with a department director making $120,000 to $150,000 per year, and they’re basically these silos. This silo does these things, even though they are similar to what other departments do. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. What I’ve actually called for doing is take those 22 departments and consolidate them down to a dozen departments. We don’t need that many department directors, and we could actually put those funds, invest them back into core county services like early childhood education, code enforcement, law enforcement. Right now we have a human services department and a community services department. I think they are both focused on community action and social services — that should be one department. We also have several back office departments — information services, human resources, budget and finance. I think a consolidated general services administration would make more sense. I also think, beyond just what we in county can do, I think we should work more with the City of Tacoma. It seems strange to me that Tacoma has a budget and finance department, we have a budget and finance department. They have an information services department, we have an information services department. They have fleet services, we have fleet services. I think especially those back office functions, which most citizens don’t interact with on a day to day basis, I’m looking forward to working with the City of Tacoma to see if we can’t consolidate some of those back office functions. Save city tax payers, save county tax payers, and in the end have a more efficient and effective service.


We have for too long done budgeting short-sightedly in Pierce County. We are in essence addicted to building permit revenue. When the economy is booming and people are building houses hand over fist, we do really well because we receive a lot of money for building permits. When the economy slows down, people build less homes, we’re in trouble. That is a very short-sighted way of doing budgeting and economic development in Pierce County. I think this is a time to step back and really have a holistic success plan for our economy. We can’t have our financial health tied to whether we have 1,000 building permits this month, or 500 building permits. That is a really short-sighted way of doing budgeting. Not good for law enforcement, not good for early childhood education investment. It’s very cyclical. What I think we should do is we need to grow our economy so that we have good family wage jobs, businesses paying sales taxes. They aren’t just short-term stimulus of the building permits, but they are your long-term contributing members of our economy.


I believe talk about the green economy and green collar jobs is real and it’s the wave of the future. What I refuse to do is be a county executive who doesn’t see the future. I don’t want to be the Detroit, Mich. of the 1950s or 1960s who didn’t see the change coming and refused to have a new generation of automobiles come out, and we see what Detroit is struggling with today. What I’ve called for doing is really getting us ready. I think the federal government is going to have a lot of grants on alternative technologies and we need to be ready to catch the football, so to speak. As county executive, I’m prepared to do that. We need to bring together our higher education system to be ready for the green economy. We also need to make sure our economic development and permitting efforts [are there]. What that means specifically is that if a company wants to locate a solar panel assembly plant, we want them to come to Tacoma-Pierce County. If someone is going to build a firm to design ethanol refueling stations, we want them to come to Tacoma-Pierce County. If someone needs a LEED-certification certifier, we want them to come to the higher education system in Tacoma-Pierce County to find that employee. That’s really my task as county executive — make sure we are ready for the next wave of the economy. I think our economic action plan will do that, and I’m very optimistic to implement it.


I’ve made it very clear that on day one, I’m going to terminate the county planning director. Only in government can someone make $130,000 a year, run up a $5 million internal department deficit, fail to implement the independent performance standards, and keep their job. It’s never a good thing when you have to let somebody go. But when you have a director that’s not willing to get into the 1990s, you need to make some changes. So I’m going to terminate the planning director. I’m also going to implement a permitting bill of rights for the planning department. We still have folks who when they go to the planning department, they get inaccurate information. They are told one thing by one person, and another [thing] by another [person]. What I’m going to do is put together a permitting bill of rights which will be a one-page piece of paper you get when you go into the planning department. On one side it will tell you what you are expected to do as an applicant. On the back, it will tell you what you can expect from the county, and the time frame associated with it. And to inject a little capitalism into the county planning system, we’re going to have a money-back guarantee. If you do your end of the bargain and we fail to meet our time-line, we’ll give you a portion of your permit revenue back. I think of it like this — the county planning department is the agency that most average people in the county deal with. It’s like the DMV for the state. Whether it’s someone going to get a permit to build a barn or to add on a master bedroom, they leave with a very bad feeling about county government. It translates to, well, if these folks can’t get their planning department straight, why should I — if we ever need to invest in transit or transportation or public safety — ever give these folks another dime when they can’t seem to do a good job with the money they already have in the county planning department?


There is a chronic problem within our criminal justice system in Pierce County. It starts at the very beginning — we don’t have enough law enforcement officers on the street and that’s why we have a very high crime rate in unincorporated Pierce County. Our courts are backlogged and I think the courts will admit they have been a little sluggish to respond. We have a lot of folks sitting in the jail who are simply waiting for a court date. Once they are in court, they might be released on their own recognizance. The jail actually has pods that are vacant. There are sections of the jail that aren’t being used. Part of the challenge is we can’t hire folks quick enough to staff all those units up. This is one area where I disagree with the current county executive [Editor’s Note: County Executive John Ladenburg has proposed eliminating six vacant corrections officer positions as part of his proposed 2009 budget]. While we may not be able to hire right now those six additional corrections officers, it should sure be our goal. The public doesn’t understand when you have hallways and sections of the jail empty and folks are getting released early, what’s the disconnect? That’s one area of the executive’s 2009 budget that I’m going to be offering some amendments on.


If I had been county executive, I would have advocated for a slightly different package. I would have been a little more insistent. But at the end of the day, we are mired in a traffic mess in Pierce County and the Puget Sound region. At the end of the day, people want alternatives, especially with the rising price of gas. This will be something everyone individually gets to vote on. As Calvin Goings the citizen looks to vote, I’ll likely vote for it. It’s not a perfect plan, but we can’t wait around for a perfect plan that may never come and let our economy and our environment suffer. I’ll likely be voting yes.

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This feature also appears on Exit 133. For an online discussion of this story, and a link to an audio interview with Goings, visit http://www.exit133.com .