Sunday, February 5, 2023
Feb. 5, 2023

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Rivers: Plenty of evidence to back refusal to confirm Peterson

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Sometimes, despite a person’s demeanor and education, she or he just isn’t the right fit for a job.

Our state Senate majority recently decided against confirming Lynn Peterson as state transportation secretary. There was overwhelming evidence to support our vote, which ended her tenure at the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Questions about Peterson began when Gov. Jay Inslee plucked her from Oregon, where she was ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber’s “sustainable communities and transportation” adviser. Was she ready to lead WSDOT as her first agency-management job?

Folks who have experienced WSDOT failures firsthand cheered the Senate’s Feb. 5 decision. I’ve repeatedly read the comment “About time!”

After Peterson’s ouster, however, her history at WSDOT was shamelessly rewritten by others. Yes, she inherited a number of challenges, like the Seattle tunnel, but what about how she single-handedly poisoned that project’s already tense atmosphere by fumbling an issue involving minority-owned contractors? So badly that a Seattle minority leader demanded her firing?

Or the sex offender employed by the state ferry system despite multiple complaints from passengers?

Or the eyebrow-raising $500,000 she authorized to settle a sexual harassment suit against the agency?

It would take this entire column to list every project failure and management misstep from Peterson’s time in charge (many are collected on my legislative Web page.)

The vocal criticism from Inslee and Democrat legislators amounts to a vigorous defense of Peterson’s mediocre management. Their claim that our decision was unexpected is weak, given that the Senate Transportation Committee chair wrote nearly a dozen letters since 2013 detailing his concerns.

The Columbian has been critical too, and unfortunately, I helped make that possible. From all the comments I made in a lengthy interview, the one chosen for print was an off-target quip about Peterson’s demeanor and profile. I should have simply said: “Sometimes, despite a person’s demeanor and education, she or he just isn’t the right fit for a job.”

Although I quickly posted a clarification of that remark, it keeps appearing. Such is life for an elected official: Sometimes I have to take my medicine whether I like it or not. That means “owning” my words, just like owning the decision the Senate made.

The Columbian has echoed Inslee’s angry accusation that election-year politics prompted the Peterson vote. I was in the room when our caucus decided against confirming Peterson and can tell Clark County residents that not every vote in Olympia is political. Some votes simply acknowledge things aren’t working, and things really weren’t working at WSDOT. The Columbian seems bent on defending someone whose state-agency experience amounted to five years as a level-1 engineer in Wisconsin 20 years before Inslee came knocking — and wouldn’t even become a Washington resident!

WSDOT did quickly replace the Skagit River Bridge in 2013 and responded admirably to 2014’s Oso landslide tragedy. I’d say the agency’s regional offices and road-shop employees warrant more credit than Peterson, though. Either way, if those are all Peterson’s supporters can point to, it’s underwhelming.

People are tired of politics, but they are also tired of feeling like there are no consequences when nothing changes. I have to own my off-target quote about Peterson and defend my voting record. Rather than repeat Seattle’s political-conspiracy theories, The Columbian ought to ask whether Peterson had a record worth defending, and if she didn’t own WSDOT’s management failures, who does?

Champions of “good enough” government can continue beating their drum. If I have to sometimes take my medicine, I will. We’ll probably be waiting a long time for our critics to do the same.

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