A County Commissioner’s Parting Words

A County Commissioner’s Parting Words

i Dec 24th No Comments by
Commissioner Karen Valenzuela

Commissioner Karen Valenzuela

When I became your County Commissioner by appointment of the Governor in early 2009, I said I had three goals: finish and adopt the long-overdue update of our County’s Critical Area Ordinance; adopt development impact fees to help growth pay for growth; and complete and adopt the County’s updated Shorelines Master Program.

Through no small effort on the part of County Commissioners, our staff and our community, the first two items are done. Though contentious at times, we managed to forge ahead with policies we believed were improvements to past practice, and based on the best information we had at the time. Work on the third goal, our Shorelines Master Program, continues, and it is my sincere hope new regulations will be in place before the end of 2015, because as with our Critical Area Ordinance, this work has languished too long.

Over the last six years, other huge pieces of work have been taken up by Commissioners, including halting the loss of the last of our fragile and beautiful prairie lands and the threatened species of both plants and animals they support; adding acres designated as long-term agricultural lands to support our farmers as well as a strengthened local food system; participating in the two-year Sustainable Thurston process; strengthening stormwater standards; researching and characterizing the health of our watersheds; and harmonizing county urban agriculture regulations with those in our neighboring jurisdictions. Other issues we’ve pushed on include moving into the County’s new jail (we’re SO close!), efforts to reform the County’s criminal justice system (which consumes more than 75% of the County’s general fund budget), addressing homelessness and the need for more affordable housing; creating new economic opportunities for farmers through our agritourism ordinance and designation of the County’s Bountiful Byway; and making very tough budget choices every year with funding that tracks barely above a flat line while expenditures rise with inflation.

I was driven and even impatient to get all this done while serving as County Commissioner because I know the stakes are so high. Doing or not doing all this work gets at the very heart of the question about what kind of community we want to be and want to leave to future generations. Strengthening our shorelines regulations has to do with maintaining and protecting water quality in our lakes, rivers and even Puget Sound. If we don’t do this work, we lose the battle to restore Puget Sound. Saving the last of our prairies has to do with preserving our natural and cultural history, and protecting a complex ecosystem on which plants, animals and humans rely for our very existence. Not doing that would mean presiding over the extinction of species that are critical to the complex web of life. Knowing about the health or degradation of our watersheds tells us what we must do differently in the future to arrest the damage human activity can wreak on our environment. Protecting farmlands protects us and strengthens our local economy, making us a more resilient, self-reliant and sustainable community. And while I have little patience with dystopian doom-sayers, I will admit to feeling the persistent press of time. For as much as we have learned and accomplished, in many ways, as with our very slow progress on addressing climate change, environmentally we are doing too little too late. We must deepen our commitment and quicken our pace.

Here’s a short list of what I’ll commit to as a fellow citizen activist no longer constrained to do what I want and say what I really think. I’ll urge electeds in our community, including County Commissioners, to: –get serious about really changing direction to acknowledge and implement what we all learned in the Sustainable Thurston process. The report that resulted from that process, “Creating Places, Preserving Spaces,” is now exactly a year old already, and provides the blueprint for charting a different future that directs new population growth (about 100,000 additional people over the next 20 years) to our existing urban areas in order to keep our rural areas rural, save our farms and forests, and protect intact functioning ecosystems without which we all perish; –press for local actions that support a radically reduced community carbon footprint. Dealing with climate change isn’t somebody else’s job, it’s all our job. We need to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’; –get engaged with the State on the ‘lake versus estuary’ conversation. Though Capitol Lake is indeed technically a state facility, it lives in the heart of our community, and local electeds need to show some leadership along with our citizens about what we want to see and support in our community.

One can never leave public office without the requisite expression of deep gratitude for the support and commitment of those without whom few of one’s accomplishments are possible. No one toils along the journey of public office alone; instead, it is alongside those whose vision and commitment we share, and with whom we work every day on the myriad things we think will improve all our lives. We all hope to leave this a better place, and we all know that takes working at it every day. I hope to continue seeing you all along that path.