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March 14, 2011

Letter to the Editor: King County shows how to lead in changing times

Special to the Journal

In our businesses, life is often a thrash. We tend to be problem solvers and therefore focus on the problems to fix. If we don't celebrate the accomplishments, we forget the progress.

We were reminded by Dow Constantine's recent State of the County speech that King County has made progress. We need to celebrate that progress, look at the reason, and think about other applications.

Frankly, to our surprise King County is making solid improvements. It's hard to think about progress when services are being reduced, but tough decisions are being made to set a better course for the future. We need to take note and hope others will as well.

To set the context, we don't think the Great Recession was a flash in the pan that will pass quickly. As a country and as individuals, it will take time to work our way out. Governments and people need to repair their balance sheets. During this process, we'll simply have less to spend.

We'd like to believe that the flush days of yesterday will return, but as Steve Ballmer said to the National Democratic Caucus in February of 2009, this is a major reset.

For governments (as well as most companies and individuals), we'll need to think hard about allocating our scarce resources to accomplish our mission. We can't do everything. Some promises that were made in more flush times need to be revisited; they simply aren't part of our future.

Dow Constantine, with Deputy Executive Fred Jarrett and the rest of his team is quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) reshaping what the county can do. Their strong leadership brings together government, labor and related constituencies to refocus on the most important goals. In the end, the county needs a plan that is sustainable and they are making progress.

Let's look at a few examples.


Too often the county has been a group of warring fiefdoms instead of a group of leaders trying to find the best solution for the county. While Metro isn't part of the county's general fund, it's about 25 percent of the county's combined budgets. For many years, there has been a battle about where to allocate new bus service and/or where to cut services. Should those decisions be based on where the money was raised or where the need exists?

Dow and his team have been able to establish that mobility and traffic are regional problems. For the good of people reaching their jobs, soccer moms/dads driving to games or reducing carbon emissions, getting people moving and reducing congestion are regional issues. The decision to let service follow need is a huge step forward.


We didn't think Dow would “take on labor” to bring costs more in line with what's affordable. Well, he didn't really “take on labor.” Instead, he and his team sat down with labor and established a plan that was in their mutual interests.

There was some pain. Previously agreed upon promises from the county about pay increases needed to be changed. Unfortunately, continuing cost increases isn't part of the reset. We're curbing costs in our businesses as well. This wasn't easy. As we often say, if it was easy, it wouldn't require leadership.


The executive has led the effort in demanding that departments plan on 3 percent efficiency improvements per year. As a country, we talk about 2 percent increases in productivity per year. The county at 3 percent is more aggressive. The start looks good. Just as we do in our businesses, this is forcing people to look for more efficient ways to operate.

So, Dow and your team: thank you for the leadership. We encourage you to continue and hope it's contagious.

Matt Griffin is managing partner of Pine Street Group and Bill Lewis is CEO of Lease Crutcher Lewis.

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