King County Executive Dow Constantine sits under his Pearl Jam poster and talks about “lean management.”
It’s the dull buzz-phrase of the Constantine administration, but it describes a methodical government overhaul that seems to be working.
Car tabs that used to take three weeks to renew now take three days.
You can get simple building permits over the counter for a set price, instead of waiting untold days and weeks and facing unpredictable, by-the-hour costs.
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County real-estate deals that used to take eight months are closing in three.
“There’s so much low-hanging fruit,” Constantine said. “It is nothing you can cut a ribbon on. It is nothing you get sudden, dramatic changes out of. But my goal is for this to be the best, most well-functioning government out there.”
The soft-spoken Constantine, 51, is running for a second term. His opponent, engineer Alan Lobdell, is a tea-party candidate whose campaign is in debt. Constantine has raised more than $900,000 and got 77 percent of the four-way primary vote in August.
Constantine’s careful and deliberate style has helped make him the state Democratic Party’s biggest hope for higher office. He is a former state legislator and member of the Metropolitan King County Council, and he fought his way out of a tough nine-way race to become executive in 2009.
He hired one of his primary opponents, former state Sen. Fred Jarrett, to be his deputy, and the two of them set to work quietly changing county government.
“We don’t get a lot of ink. We just get things done,” Constantine said.
Constantine’s first term was so cautiously managed that even a scandal — his apparent affair with a local communications consultant — disappeared from the headlines in a day.
His critics on the Metropolitan King County Council did not respond to calls seeking comment about him.
In his first term, Constantine has resisted the usual power struggles that are common between the Seattle mayor and the King County executive. He may be the only politician in town who has not clashed publicly with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. Instead, the two cooperated on a proposed deal to build a new Sonics arena in Sodo.
Constantine did hire away the city’s longtime, well-regarded budget director, Dwight Dively, and Seattle City Light chief of staff Sung Yang. Jarrett, who also worked for years at Boeing, says the Cabinet assembled by Constantine is the best group he’s ever worked with.
At Cabinet meetings, Constantine listens more than he talks, and often urges the group to think of things the way the public would, instead of getting lost in the wonky woods of bureaucracy.
Early in his term, he made the call to close the crumbling South Park Bridge, helping to force a cooperative effort to replace it with public and private funds.
He sped up replacement of the Howard Hanson Dam after it sprang a leak, helping to get the Kent Valley’s warehouse district back to work.
But Constantine acknowledges that most of his accomplishments happened inside the county administration building. One by one, his team has inspected age-old bureaucratic processes. They ask employees to map them out using Post-it notes, then remake them.
It’s taken a change in culture, as well.
Recently, the county trained low-level county staffers about how to make their work more efficient. For example, if a more-senior employee always uses the bathroom while the janitor is trying to clean it, it’s OK for the janitor to suggest using another restroom or, as Constantine put it during a recent staff meeting: “hold it.”
Constantine’s opponent, Alan Lobdell, is a tea-party candidate whose online biography recounts his two bankruptcies and a period of time he said he “lived in the back of my 1960 Chevrolet and ate cold hot dogs for about three months because I had nowhere else to go.”
During the primary, Lobdell put out an emotional online video explaining that his second bankruptcy was a result of his late wife’s cancer treatments. “She was worth it,” the ad concluded.
He is running on a platform of cutting waste from the government and not raising taxes, even if it means cutting salaries.
Lobdell’s actual plans are unclear, but he has a lot of generalized criticism of Constantine.
For example: “It may look like they’re cutting a lot, but how are they doing it? And what are they doing?”
As for future political plans, Constantine said he would like to run for statewide office or the U.S. Senate at some point. He compared King County to a small state. It’s one of the biggest counties in the nation and has almost a third of the population of Washington.
Although he has cut the county general fund’s growth from 6 percent a year to about 3 percent, there are more cuts coming. The 2014 budget is balanced, but the 2015 budget already faces a shortfall.
Constantine also is leading an effort to get the state Legislature to hold a special session to pass a transportation bill giving local governments more taxing options. King County is desperate for that because a $20 car-tab fee that is helping to pay for bus service expires early next year.
The county is also short on road funds. Most of the
taxes in King County are generated inside cities, but the county must maintain the rural roads that tie cities together across unincorporated areas.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter