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News / Politics / Election

Rivers’ role model serves both state, county roles

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer
Published: December 20, 2014, 4:00pm
3 Photos
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, sits at his desk on the Senate floor in Olympia in 2013.
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, sits at his desk on the Senate floor in Olympia in 2013. He caucuses with Republicans and also serves on the Board of Mason County Commissioners. Photo Gallery

Population of Mason County: 60,497.

Population of Clark County: 443,817.

Distance from Shelton to Olympia: About 22 miles.

Distance from Vancouver to Olympia: About 106 miles.

Pay of Mason County Commissioner: Base salary of $79,152.

Pay of Clark County Chair: Base salary of $63,000.

Tim Sheldon’s position in state Senate: President pro tempore.

Ann Rivers’ position in state Senate: Majority coalition whip.

Mason County government: 3 commissioners.

Clark County government: 5 councilors plus a county administrator after charter takes effect.

When Sen. Ann Rivers announced this month she is running for chairwoman of the Clark County Council, she included a second announcement that’s rarer among politicians: She plans to keep her seat in the state Senate.

In her defense, she pointed up the road to Sen. Tim Sheldon, who is also a county commissioner in Mason County.

“So I know it can be done,” Rivers wrote in a press release.

Sheldon, a Democrat from Potlatch, was elected to the upper chamber in 1997 and first elected to the Mason County post in 2004.

He still serves in both roles.

It can be done. The question is, how well.

Sheldon’s two roles

In Sheldon’s life, there are no time cards, no punching in and out.

His county commissioner landline rings through to his cellphone if he doesn’t answer.

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers and county commissioners to have another job, as Sheldon is quick to point out, and both positions are technically part time.

“The county commission job complements the Legislature,” he said.

Sheldon worked to prevent the state from “taking away our liquor tax revenue,” and he said he’ll lobby for cities and counties to get a cut of marijuana revenue.

“I’ve been able to effectively bring to the Legislature the local government perspective,” he said.

His detractors, he claims, are political in nature.

“The Democrats always want to nail my hide to the wall,” he said.

Although Sheldon is a Democrat, he crossed the aisle and caucuses with Senate Republicans.

He serves as the president pro tempore of the Washington state Senate, a role with added responsibility, which he cites to explain some of the missed meetings and briefings.

The 67-year-old politician’s roots run deep in Mason County; his family has owned private timberland in the region since the 1940s.

“It’s up to the citizens; if they don’t like me doing both roles, they wouldn’t have elected me. … A big part of the election was, ‘He holds two jobs.’ (Detractors) used that over and over again and the voters said, ‘It’s OK with us,’ ” Sheldon said.

Sheldon said he shows up to meetings prepared and attributes his ability to do both jobs to being efficient and organized.

“Sometimes the other commissioners want me available 24 hours a day for their meetings. What I like to do is, if someone says we have a meeting that lasts from 2 to 4, I come at 2 and I leave at 4, because I have another appointment,” Sheldon said.

Although he doesn’t plan to run for a fourth term as a commissioner, he believes his constituents have benefited from his holding both positions.

“I don’t think I shortchange the voters or the citizens of Mason County or the state,” Sheldon said. “I give them value for every minute I’m there. I’m dedicated to public service.”

And every election, the voters send him back.

“I’ve been elected three times as a state senator while I was a county commissioner, and I’ve been elected county commissioner three times while a state senator — that’s six elections,” Sheldon said. “Six elections I was on the ballot, everyone knew I was a state senator. … It’s up to the voters.”

In Mason County

On most Tuesdays, you can find Conley Watson sitting in the back row of the Mason County commissioners room.

He’ll tell you right away: His attendance record at the meetings is better than Sheldon’s.

The 81-year-old has attended nearly every meeting since 2010; he keeps meeting agendas at home and marks the top to indicate whether Sheldon was present.

“He wasn’t here yesterday for the meeting; he phoned in,” Watson said.

The Mason County Journal, the local weekly paper in the area, reported in April 2013, “In the first 3½ months of 2013, Sheldon missed all or part of every Monday commission briefing session and has showed up late, left early or missed 8 of 16 Tuesday commission meetings.”

Sheldon doesn’t keep track of his attendance but says he’s been to “more than 500 commission meetings.”

Sheldon’s detractors are matched in passion by his supporters; most in the political sphere don’t appear to be ambivalent about Sheldon.

Doug Sayan, 86, who served the region in the state House from 1983 to 1991, has heard the argument that it benefits locals to have a state senator represent them at the county level. He doesn’t buy it.

“Despite the fact that (Sheldon) would declare it’s an advantage to the district that he be in both roles, it simply isn’t the case,” Sayan said. “When I was in the Legislature, I worked closely with the commission and I moved issues that were important to the commission. But I didn’t have to be (elected) to both.”

Jay Hupp, who worked with Sheldon for more than a decade while he was director of the economic development council, believes Sheldon’s relationships benefit the county in ways that aren’t always tangible.

“He’s in a position to drop a word here or there on things that impact the county in one way or the other,” he said.

And he’s never seen Sheldon “less than fully up-to-speed and briefed on an issue.”

“I would attribute that to both his intellect and his motivation. He has a tremendous capacity for handling information and dealing with it in a level-headed manner,” Hupp said.

County commissioners

Terri Jeffreys, chairwoman of the Board of Mason County Commissoners, pulls a piece of paper down from her bulletin board.

Attending commission meetings is only part of the job, Jeffreys said, pointing to the list.

“I sit on 11 committees,” she said, ranging from the clean water district to the area agency on aging.

“Sheldon represents the county on three,” said Jeffreys, who ran as an independent.

There are advantages to working with a state senator, she said. Sheldon has secured legislation that’s in the county’s best interest and pushed for approval for a third superior court judge in the region.

But, she said, “it does increase the workload for the other” commissioners.

“It makes it difficult to work together in a sustained way on issues, to come to agreement so we don’t have to split votes and to be able to work out our differences in the county briefing sessions, which is where the real work happens. … His schedule is so filled, we don’t always know his availability,” she said.

Population of Mason County: 60,497.

Population of Clark County: 443,817.

Distance from Shelton to Olympia: About 22 miles.

Distance from Vancouver to Olympia: About 106 miles.

Pay of Mason County Commissioner: Base salary of $79,152.

Pay of Clark County Chair: Base salary of $63,000.

Tim Sheldon's position in state Senate: President pro tempore.

Ann Rivers' position in state Senate: Majority coalition whip.

Mason County government: 3 commissioners.

Clark County government: 5 councilors plus a county administrator after charter takes effect.

Randy Neatherlin, also a county commissioner, said he wishes “things were different.”

“I would like him to do one thing or the other. I think it would be beneficial,” Neatherlin said. “But at the same time, I don’t think he’s doing wrong, and you have to make that clear.”

If another commissioner missed a meeting, Sheldon said, “it’s not the end of the world.”

“We don’t always have to vote yes. … I try to ask polite, intrusive questions, and I think sometimes other commissioners think we have to think alike and vote alike,” Sheldon said.

Two masters

Tom Davis, who is represented in the state Senate and at the county level by Sheldon, believes it veers pretty close to “doing wrong.”

Earlier this month, Davis, who touts a near-perfect attendance record at Mason County board meetings, recently asked two other commissioners if they could continue a budget hearing on another day so Sheldon — his elected official — was present.

“I don’t think (his) holding the two elected positions has helped us,” Davis said. “It’s concentrated the power of two key political positions in one person who is exercising his political ideology.”

Davis said he believes there are examples where it’s also created a conflict of interest.

“Sen. Sheldon is representing the 35th legislative District, and it doesn’t just encompass Shelton, but south portion of Kitsap County and north portion of Thurston County. So if he has to make a decision that’s beneficial to larger area to Mason, Kitsap … sometimes it runs counter to (what’s good for) Mason County.”

In 2005, the legislative ethics board dismissed a complaint lodged against Sheldon alleging he was violating the Ethics in Public Service Act by holding the two elective offices. The board ruled it did not have jurisdiction to enforce the Doctrine of Incompatible Offices.

The analysis adds, “This Board has consistently reaffirmed the citizen-legislator concept, based upon the constitutional principle of a part time legislature. … Very few non-legislative employment opportunities are prohibited outright.”

Peggy Kerns, the director of the ethics center of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in recent years other states have passed restrictions on the type of dual offices elected leaders can hold.

“It used to be years ago that New Jersey was the poster child for this, mayors were in the Legislature and all this, but pretty much not a whole lot of states allow that now — and the reason for that is the potential of a conflict of interest, the serving-two-masters type of thing,” she said.

Sheldon said he’s never felt conflicted or had to choose between his legislative and county districts.

“It’s great to talk about what Tom Davis thinks or other commissioners think or some spokesman at a national organization in D.C., but the voters say they like me and I think I’ll do what they say,” Sheldon said.

Betty Sue Morris: Council’s first year needs focus

Longtime public servant is unconvinced two jobs could work

Changes are coming next year to Clark County government.

Last month, voters approved the home-rule charter. Two new people will be elected in November to fill out the Clark County Council, replacing the Board of Clark County Commissioners.

One of them will be chairperson, chosen by a countywide vote.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, hopes it will be her.

Betty Sue Morris, a key player in passing the county charter and a former lawmaker, said that if Rivers tries to hold that position while keeping her Senate seat, it would harm the county — even if it’s only for a year, Morris maintains. Rivers’ Senate term runs through the end of 2016.

“The first full year of having five council members will be absolutely critical,” Morris said. “I believe the chair must be present. … She would be required at session in Olympia at the same time her responsibilities of the chair of the new council are at their highest.”

Morris, who resigned a legislative seat when she was appointed as a Clark County commissioner in 1996, served with then-Rep. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, in the House. Sheldon is now a Mason County Commissioner and the incoming president pro tempore in the Senate, and Rivers has cited his situation in justifying her decision to seek a second elected office.


The comparisons between the two aren’t exact, Morris said. Mason County’s government is organized the way Clark County’s has been — a three-member Board of County Commissioners.

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“(Mason County) is adjacent to Thurston County, and (Sheldon) goes home every night, and it’s a very small county,” Morris said.

Clark County leaders, meanwhile, are “undergoing a substantial transition in their organization and authorities.”

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, was criticized when he took on the role of director of the county’s Department of Environmental Services. Although Benton’s second job is not an elected position, constituents questioned if he could effectively serve in both posts.

Rivers notes that the voters chose to make the county council a part-time position. She expects meetings will be scheduled for evenings and weekends, giving the public more chances to attend.

As with Sheldon, she said, her holding both seats would only benefit the region.

“I’ve talked to several people who are in Sen. Sheldon’s district, and they have said they received benefits they never would have gotten without him being a senator. To know your county, to know your district so well, you can advocate on behalf of the people you represent at two levels. I don’t see a conflict with that,” Rivers said.

The Legislature is slated to kick off the 2015 legislative session Jan. 12.

Columbian Political Writer