Ed cetera

Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

August 20, 2014 at 6:03 AM

Continue the push for human rights in Vietnam

Remarkable changes are afoot in Vietnam, a country that Americans left in humiliating fashion nearly 40 years ago when Saigon fellto communist forces.

Last week, the U.S. Army's highest-ranking official visited Hanoi to mend old war wounds and to set the stage for a new, friendlier era that goes beyond diplomacy to possibly include arms sales to Vietnam. Here's what U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told USA Today in a Aug. 18 news report:

"That's not to say it won't happen without some effort. But I think there's a possibility that Vietnam could be a very strong partner. Look at our history with the British or the Germans or the Japanese. It could be like a phoenix rising from the ashes. That's what I hope happens here in this relationship."

For many in Seattle's large Vietnamese-American community, including myself, it's difficult to view any actions by Vietnam's government without skepticism. Overseas Vietnamese — predominantly made up of refugees and citizens of the former South Vietnam forced to flee after the communist takeover — have long staged protests and movements for democracy, religious freedom and human rights in their homeland. The regime has largely ignored those pleas— until now.

Vietnam has few options. Its leadership needs allies to fend off China's aggression in the South China See and to increase trade.

Among the reasons to believe the tide has turned and Vietnam is on the verge of a substantive political shift:

  • In July, a band of journalists formed the country's first independent journalism organization to protect freedom of the press and reporting free of government censorship, according to the group Reporters without Borders.
  • The U.S. is actively engaged and interested in balancing Beijing's powers in the region, reports Voice of America. The Vietnamese are just as interested in keeping China at bay and maintaining sovereignty.
  • This month, 61 members of the Communist Party signed an open letter calling "for more political openness," according to The New York Times.
  • Vietnam badly wants to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, a major free trade agreement under negotiation by the U.S. and 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific.

This represents a golden opportunity to ensure Vietnam follows through with its obligation to improve labor conditions and its human rights record, which Human Rights Watch warns "deteriorated significantly in 2013." At least one analyst tells the BBC that Vietnam stands to benefit the most from joining the TPP because of the high volume of apparel and footwear now made and exported to the U.S.

Prominent Vietnamese political dissident and constitutional scholar Cu Huy Ha Vu was released from a Vietnamese prison in April. In a stirring May 16 guest column for The Washington Post, he called for future negotiations to include forcing the Communist Party to release some 400 prisoners of conscience and to repeal a series of laws designed to maintain one-party control.

The U.S. and other TPP countries should insist upon those reforms before diplomatic relations with Vietnam are extended to include the sales of military weapons and membership in a lucrative trade agreement.

August 19, 2014 at 7:03 AM

Mikado, yellowface debate at Seattle Repertory Theatre forum

Corrected version

Should historic works created during different times with different sensibilities be shelved? Should the work be altered? Can the work be done if proper context is provided? How often do you see representations of people who look like you on a regular basis? (No. Yes. Yes. Almost never.)

These were just a few of the questions asked at a Monday night forum on theater and race sparked by a recent Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of "The Mikado" that cast 40 non-Asian actors in Japanese roles. The event, "Artistic Freedom and Artistic Responsibility," featured a panel of theater artists and was organized by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the City of Seattle's Office of Arts & Culture, the city's Office for Civil Rights and King County's cultural-services agency 4Culture. In addition to the panelists, the discussion drew in discussion from audience members who had submitted comments in advance.

Seattle Channel plans to broadcast the video. Many artists in other cities who could not attend the event watched a livestream and discussed it on Twitter with the hashtag #SeattleAFAR. Here is video from Howlround.

I first wrote about the problematic production in a Seattle Times column four weeks ago, "The yellowface of 'The Mikado' in your face." The column sparked a national debate — community groups like the JACL spoke out against the show, protesters demonstrated outside most of the shows, national outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, NPR and CBC covered it, and influential bloggers like Angry Asian Man and Reappropriate wrote about it. Read, watch and listen to all the coverage at " 'The Mikado,' yellowface: All the coverage."

While Seattle Repertory Theatre organization was not involved in the making of "The Mikado," the show did take place at its Bagley Wright Theatre space through an arrangement between the city of Seattle and Gilbert & Sullivan Society that dates back to 1962. The society is a community theater group that depends mostly on volunteers.

Kathy Hsieh, theatre artist and co-executive producer for SIS Productions, moderated the discussion. The ground rules given at the beginning of the forum would work well for any discussion about racial issues.

  • Take time to listen before responding. Listen to listen not just to prepare a response.
  • Treat each person’s perspective as the truth for him or her. If everything goes the way we want it to, everyone will feel a little or a lot uncomfortable.
  • Be willing to accept that while you may mean well your actions or words may come off as hurtful to others.
  • Give each other the benefit of the doubt.

How can producers and directors learn about what might inflame community members? The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, for instance, expressed surprise that anyone would be offended by its production and casting choices.

"The cardinal sin for the producer is to be caught unaware. When you’re engaged with the community, then you know when you are likely to piss them off," said Valerie Curtis-Newton, artistic director of The Hansberry Project. "You make choices based on that."

Several people said engaging a community does not mean tokenism — for instance, talking to one Jewish, African American or Native American and taking that single person's perspective as validation.

"What you should not say is I have an Asian or Jewish friend and they’re cool with it," said Fern Renville, managing director of Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre.

She added that she saw parallels between how people are defending the offensive stereotypes in "The Mikado" with how people are defending use of an ethnic slur for the Washington NFL team mascot.

Roger Tang, founder of Pork Filled Players, a Seattle Asian-American theater group, said, "The audience does have the right to say what it thinks of it. If you do a half-ass job on racial stereotyping and you are lazy about it, you are going to hear about that."

How does a group go about building those relationships with a community?

One case study was presented: A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) was producing "The Ramayana" and built partnerships with South Asian and Southeast Asian community leaders in a program called Ramayana Ambassadors. While the program began as a marketing partnership, the ambassadors ended up advising the artistic collaborators on the Ramayana story, organizing events and creating programs that complemented the show. The partnership led to strong ticket sales and it expanded ACT's reach into new audiences. Here is more information about how ACT built the Ramayana partnerships.

How should a theater group deal with protesters?

Beverly Naidus, associate professor of interdiscipinary arts at the University of Washington Tacoma, offered these pointers:

  • Do not ignore them.
  • Do not make assumptions about what they are thinking.
  • Do not assume that one gesture or invitation is enough to address concerns.
  • Do not hope that it will all blow over.

What does the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society think after hearing all of this?

Mike Storie, producer for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, attended the forum as an audience member and spoke briefly. He had just returned from a summit of other Gilbert & Sullivan societies brainstorming different ways to do "The Mikado," which the Seattle group does not intend to produce for another six years.

"The goal here is to be able to produce the Mikado in a way that context is taken care of in a way that it can be changed," Storie said. "Some of suggestions were good, some were ridiculous. Changing name from Nanki Poo to Frankie Poo probably won’t fool anybody."

"I can see that it does hurt somebody," Storie said about his recent production of "The Mikado." "There’s no way I as a white man can get in the head of somebody who is Japanese. Nor can someone get into my head as a white man."

Does it end here?

"What makes this time different?" asked Curtis-Newton. "Because we do this really well. Seattle does this, like 'Let’s have a community feeling moment, make sure that everyone feels good about everyone else’s opinion and that we are all just loved.'

"I’m a double Virgo. I want to know what the hell happens next? What are you willing to do producers to make it different? What are you willing to do artists to make it different? What are you doing as audience members to make it different?

"If we are here 6 years when Mike does the Mikado again having not learned a single thing, it’s on us. This room seeds the ambassadors, seeds the conversations, each one of us can begin to help move things forward."

Hsieh, the moderator, said the organizers plan to use this forum as a starting point for workshops and more events that will bring other national artists to Seattle. It sounds promising.

"The Mikado" remains incredibly popular for Gilbert & Sullivan community theater groups around the country to produce. Those groups want to perform and share the humor and music of the opera. The smarter groups understand that if they want the work to live on, they need to figure out a way to make the opera relevant for a modern society. The show I went to in July may have been filled with appreciative audience members, but they were almost all over 50. The fan base will eventually die out if these groups don't think about how to appeal to younger audiences, and people will forget Gilbert and Sullivan ever existed.

If Seattle could become a lab of experimentation on producing historic works that engage the community, that could potentially move the performing arts forward not just in this city, but across a whole nation headed for a multiracial future.

This blog post, originally published at 7:03 a.m. on Aug. 19, 2014, was corrected at 9:50 a.m. and 12:26 p.m. the same day. An earlier version omitted the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture as an event organizer and gave the incorrect name for A Contemporary Theatre. This post has also been updated to include video of the forum from Howlround.

August 19, 2014 at 6:02 AM

'The Mikado,' yellowface: All the coverage

The controversy about a Seattle "Mikado" production began with my July 14 Seattle Times column, "The yellowface of 'The Mikado' in your face."

My Opinion Northwest blog post about the experience of watching the show: " 'The Mikado,' yellowface and seeing the Seattle show"

If you spot other writing worth sharing, please let me know at or let me know on Twitter @sharonpianchan

News coverage:

NPR segment by Sam Sander: "Why We've Been Seeing More 'Yellowface' In Recent Months" NPR Codeswitch's Kat Chow (a former Seattle Times intern) also did an online chat: "Roundtable: The Past And Present Of 'Yellowface' "

MSNBC news segment by anchor Richard Lui: "Stereotypes in 'The Mikado' Stir Controversy in Seattle"

CBC Radio segment by host Stephen Quinn: "The Mikado controversy: Does opera have a race problem?" "Stereotypes in 'The Mikado' Stir Controversy in Seattle

Northwest Asian Weekly: " 'Yellowface' controversy over the 'The Mikado' — Gilbert & Sullivan opera incites protest"

WQRX, the New York classical music rado station, news story: " 'Asian blackface' in 'The Mikado" stirs controversy in Seattle"

Statements by community groups:

Seattle Repertory Theatre announced community dialogue for Aug. 18: Artistic freedom vs. artistic responsibility

Japanese American Citizens League: JACL Objects to Usage of Yellowface and Stereotypes in Seattle Production of The Mikado

OCA Greater Seattle on "The Mikado"

Chinese American Citizens Alliance: "Yellowface in 2014? Is It 2014 or 1914?"

Radio interviews:

Mikado cast member and KIRO Radio host Dave Ross and I debated the issue on his show: "Seattle Times editorial columnist and Dave Ross go head-to-head over "yellow face" in "The Mikado"

Ron and Don Show on KIRO Radio: "Seattle Times columnist says opera starring Dave Ross is racist"

Opinion commentary:

Seattle Times guest opinion by Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society Producer Mike Storie and Board member Gene Ma: " 'The Mikado' is worth performing." (Editorial Page Editor Kate Riley and I personally invited supporters of the show to submit guest opinion offering a different perspective from my column.)

Seattle Times guest opinion by artistic director Rick Shiomi, who created a 2013 Minneapolis version of "The Mikado" without stereotypes or yellowface acting: "Making 'The Mikado' without Asian stereotypes"

Seattle Times guest column by Westfield State University Professor Robin DiAngelo who writes about whiteness: "What does it mean to be white?"

Letters to the editor representing multiple perspectives in our Northwest Voices blog. Ken Narasaki, who co-wrote a play called "The Mikado Project," contributed one of the letters. guest commentary by Jeff Yang: "Yellowface staging of 'Mikado' has to end"

Angry Asian Man blog: "Real-life yellowface! Now playing in Seattle"

Seattle Times commentary by theater critic Misha Berson: "The ‘Mikado’ controversy: A call for calm discourse"

International Examiner editorial board: " ‘The Mikado’ controversy an opportunity to create and educate"

Atlantic Media's Quartz commentary by Gwynn Guilford: "It’s time to stop using 'exoticism' as an excuse for opera’s racism"

Stranger commentary by Brendan Kiley: The problem with The Mikado

ReAppropriate guest post by Sean Miura: "Undoing 'Mikado': Japan is not an imaginary place, and I am not a metaphor"

The You Offend Me You Offend My Family blog has a humor take (I approve of the KKK and apocalypse scenarios in this humor post): "6 Times When it’s OK for white people to don yellow face"

Actress Erin Quill writes her own lyrics for a song from "The Mikado" on her blog: "I have 'A Little List' too — buckle up"

Actress Lucy Sheen, on a personal blog, responds to the KIRO Radio debate with Dave Ross where he asks whether Japanese actors who wear kabuki-theater makeup are playing Caucasian roles: "Kabuki is NOT white face"

Bo Lim, an associate professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University, used "The Mikado" to discuss about stereotypes still used in evangelical teachings in a post for the Sojourners website: "Why Evangelicals Should Care About 'The Mikado' Controversy If They Care About Reconciliation in the Church"

August 18, 2014 at 6:20 AM

Busting the stigma of mental illness

In the course of researching for the "What's troubling mental-health care" editorial package published in Sunday's Seattle Times, I heard again and again stories of people with mental health disorders living full, healthy lives. These stories rarely make it into the paper, as they are shoved aside by tragedies linked to mental illness.

Here are two stories, shared in order to give other people hope for recovery, and to tear at the stigma of mental illness:

Steve Murphy was working a construction job away from his native Seattle when he experienced his first signs of illness. He was helping build a coal processing plant in Kentucky, working with strangers, when he stopped sleeping or eating much. His speech became rapid and impulsive. Classic signs of mania, he now realizes.

Murphy ended up taking a flight back home, where he was met by a girlfriend, whom he credits with saving his life. She helped get him into a psychiatric hospital, where, he said, he was diagnosed correctly as having bipolar disorder. He hasn't been hospitalized since. "I'm incredibly lucky, for so many reasons," said Murphy, now 61.

That was the beginning of his recovery. He said he found the right medication within a few years, and began working in the restaurant industry, including Red Robin, Flakey Jakes and Schwartz Brothers. He never told coworkers about his diagnosis, fearing the consequences.

Since 1989, he's run his own consulting firm, advising small businesses on finance and data processing. He's also become a mental health advocate, serving on the board of the Seattle nonprofit Transitional Resources, and going through the "In Our Own Voice" training with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Seattle chapter, which helps people share their recovery stories.

As part of that speakers' bureau, Murphy regularly visits Harborview Medical Center's psychiatric ward with a direct message:

“If you have mental illness, you can have a life.”

Murphy's prescription for recovery is to maintain treatment, including medications, to maintain a solid work life, and to maintain strong relationships. On that front, he's remarkably successful. The woman whom he met at the airport in 1977 became his wife. Steve and Chris Murphy have been married for 35 years.

Richard Martin, Jr., 62, diagnoses the problem of stigma with a physician's perspective:

 The only way you deal with stigma is having people who’ve walked that path talking about it.

An Army doctor with a glittering academic record, Martin interned at Madigan Army Medical Center in 1976. But as he was working at a military hospital in Denver, Martin (no relation to the writer of this blog post) was infected with the HIV virus in an accidental needle stick, although he didn't realize he contracted it until 1991.

Martin believes that he developed bipolar disorder as a symptom of the HIV infection, which became full blown AIDS. He continued in the medical profession for two decades, but the mental and physical symptoms of both illnesses made it difficult to thrive professionally. "I managed to work my way out of that profession. There was a large amount of prejudice with HIV, but I would imagine it was mostly my behavior," said Martin, who retired from medicine in 1999.

Martin, however, describes himself as "a resurrection story." Advances in the treatment of AIDS put Martin into remission since 2006, and his psychiatric symptoms subsided. He, too, joined NAMI's "In Our Own Voice" speaker's bureau, presenting at Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College. He is now finishing a master's degree in pastoral therapy at Seattle U.

Martin compares the current stigma of mental illness to breast cancer, which led to the emergence of the "pink ribbon culture."

"Women used to die for fear of exposing themselves to their doctor," he says. "I think we have to get there with mental illness."

August 18, 2014 at 6:19 AM

Auditor Kelley makes a right move in Insurance Commissioner's case

State Auditor Troy Kelley made an unfortunate decision last May when he decided not to investigate a rather serious charge against a state agency -- that the Office of Insurance Commissioner was pressuring a judge to rule in its favor. But since then he has come up with a pretty solid idea, a performance audit that will examine whether judges ought to work for state agencies in the first place.

It’s about time someone analyzed that question in a formal way. The charge from hearings officer Patricia Petersen calls attention to the fact that many state agencies conduct appeals hearings in their own offices, using judges who are subject to discipline and termination by agency managers. The arrangement raises doubt about the impartiality of hearings – as it certainly seems to in this case.

Petersen, who has been chief hearings officer in Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s office for 19 years, says a new supervisor attempted to influence decisions on high-profile cases by issuing unfavorable job evaluations hinting at disciplinary action. The office maintains it was within bounds, and Petersen's important accusation has been muddled by counter-allegations from the office that Petersen dealt with her concerns improperly. Last month an investigation commissioned by Kreidler’s office appeared to exonerate the agency of impropriety and assigned fault to the judge. Disciplinary proceedings, which could include termination, are now under way.

In an op-ed piece that ran in the Spokane Spokesman-Review Aug. 9, Kelley defends his decision not to investigate Petersen’s charges. If he had, she might have obtained whistleblower protection and action against her would have been put on hold. But Kelley says he views her case as a personnel matter, and says his decision has been bolstered by subsequent “revelations about the employee’s own conduct” -- namely the points raised by the Insurance Commissioner's investigation.

Not everyone would have made that call. The Times urged him to rethink. Kelley’s predecessor Brian Sonntag said he would have investigated. And a truly independent investigation by the auditor’s office might have come to a different conclusion.

But Kelley’s announcement of a performance audit to look at the grander issue is a different matter, and the idea has merit of its own. Kelley writes,

“While a whistleblower investigation of this particular situation was clearly not warranted, I believe that what is warranted is a larger, systemic review to determine if the practice by some state agencies of using in-house administrative law judges is good public policy. The internal conflict at the Office of Insurance Commissioner notwithstanding, several obvious questions arise about the role of administrative law officers in state government. Can an administrative hearing process be considered independent if it is housed within an agency and reporting to the head of an agency? If these processes are truly meant to be independent, why house them within an agency, which could intuitively raise issues about independence and impartiality?”

Many are asking the same questions, among them former Attorney General Rob McKenna and state Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee. Becker says she may introduce legislation next session to move hearings from the Office of Insurance Commissioner to another office within state government that has the capability to hold independent hearings, the Office of Administrative Hearings. Some 26 state agencies have the ability to stage hearings there, including Kreidler’s office, but nearly all reserve the right to overrule its decisions.

Phil Talmadge, the former Supreme Court justice who is representing Petersen as an attorney, suggests it might make more sense to create a statewide Superior Court to hear administrative appeals. In that case, the judicial canons would clearly apply and independence and impartiality would be assured. A constitutional amendment might be required. At this point it is unclear whether the audit will be done in time for lawmakers to consider the matter next year, but it sounds like Kelley has found a good way to dig in.

August 16, 2014 at 5:19 PM

Join a video chat to discuss mental-health challenges at noon Thursday

The Seattle Times editorial board started a conversation on the mental-health challenges facing Washington state with an editorial series this weekend. The exploration of these issues will continue through the week with guest columns, reader perspectives and a video Google+ Hangout

at noon Thursday. Join the discussion on this page, which will be updated with a video window when the event is live. Panelists in the Google+ Hangout will be:

David Stone, chief executive of Sound Mental Health

Cinda Johnson, co-author of "Perfect Chaos, A Daughter's Struggle to Survive Bipolar and a Mother's Journey to Save Her"

Scott Bond, chief executive of the Washington State Hospital Association

Jonathan Martin, editorial writer

Thanh Tan, multimedia editorial writer, who will moderate the discussion

August 15, 2014 at 6:01 AM

Lessons from Ferguson: Citizens have right to capture photos, videos of militarized police

Numerous journalism associations came forward on Thursday to condemn the unnecessary arrest and subsequent release of two reporters covering the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo.

Read The Washington Post's roundup of statements or see the tweet below from the American Society of Newspaper Editors:

Reporters Wesley Lowerey of The Washington Post and Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post were simply doing their jobs. So far, it appears police entered the McDonald's they were working in and escalated the situation for no good reason. Those uniformed officers should be identified, punished and trained on how to treat fellow citizens with respect, whether they are civilians or members of the press.

They only have themselves to blame for the widespread attention to their actions.

Reporters are in Ferguson to cover a story. When they become part of the narrative, journalists everywhere pay attention. Coverage blows up to a whole new level. Unfortunately, it took the mistreatment of these two journalists for Missouri officials to "get it" and send in State Patrol officers to seize law enforcement authority.

What's more striking to many of us is the series of images and video coming out of Missouri, including the photo below captured by The Washington Post. Are we looking at scenes from a war zone or Middle America? Hard to tell the difference these past few days.

The unrest reminds me of a 2011 rap song by Seattle's Blue Scholars called "Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant," about the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a police officer at a BART station in Oakland. Rapper Geo's lyrics still resonate three years later — and after several similar incidents involving authority figures killing young black men — in his call for citizens to shoot (videos and photos) of cops.

"But guess what, the people got a weapon of their own/ The lens and a shutter built into a mobile phone/ Evidence admissible in court/Even more documented cases of what's been going on /Shoot the cops/Take your cameras out ya pockets people."

Not only do Americans have a legal right to document police activity (as we're reminded in this article from The Atlantic), but sometimes a phone with a camera is the only tool citizens have to hold increasingly militarized police forces accountable.

Here's a video featuring the Blue Scholars song, but be warned there is strong language.

August 14, 2014 at 6:16 AM

About Robert J. Vickers, our new Seattle Times editorial writer

Greetings, Seattle! I’m Robert Vickers, and I’m the newest addition to The Seattle Times editorial board.

I arrive here having spent several years as a journalist writing about public policy, higher education, legal affairs and politics at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., and The Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida.

I also taught journalism, communications and sports administration at Syracuse University for a number of years, and briefly at Bond University in Australia.

But rather than run down my resume, I’d like to share some things about myself so that you have a better idea of who’s talking with you in our pages and on our website.

I’m the son of a grade-school teacher and a career Marine. And although I consider myself a Southerner, I grew up traversing the American landscape. My father’s work moved the family on average every two years of my youth. He used to boast that he’d “gone further in one direction than the average man will travel in a lifetime.”

As a result of that upbringing, moving is not only easy for me, it’s become a powerful, instinctive impulse that I’ve only just recently begun to resist.

This wanderlust has been the defining characteristic of my adult life. Since graduating from college, I’ve lived in five different states and four other countries. And just before deciding to come here, I literally spent three months working in Daytona Beach.

Mentors, colleagues and friends have often been dumbfounded by my vagabond existence. What I’ve been searching for and why, I’ll share in future columns or blog posts.

You’re probably more curious about my politics. I shun labels. Instead of being D or R, left or right, liberal or conservative; I prefer to say I’m American. My focus is on the well being of the republic, not the advancement of a particular agenda, political party or trade union.

And I am passionate in my belief that our nation can persist only if a vibrant Fourth and Fifth Estate empower the public with relevant news and information.

Sometimes that may mean mixing sugar with your cod liver oil. But more often, it means giving the public its medicine straight, with no chaser.

I’ve never been much of a joiner. The high-end street gangs masquerading as major American political parties hold no appeal to me. Having covered politics on the city, state and national level, I see little difference between them, other than their manipulating different constituencies for their oscillating amusement. I liken their conflicts to the $1 bet Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy make in “Trading Places.”

I have little patience for sky-is-falling neurotics, and even less for manipulators or bullies. In the great American tradition, I’m a live-and-let-live kind of guy. And while I enjoy genuine and civil debate, I worry that blind faith and tunnel vision are the cancers of our society.

A favorite axiom is: “Who is the bigger fool – the fool, or the person who argues with the fool?”

I’m also a very tall, 40-something black man who is stunned daily by people’s bizarre fascination with height. Anytime I leave my home, some gawking stranger will invariably invade my privacy to inquire about the details of my stature, whether I play basketball, and how the weather is “up there.”

Consequently, I’ve become quite callous to the subject. My exact height is no one’s business but my own. I do not and have never aspired to play basketball. And the atmosphere I breathe is just the same as everyone else’s. I’ll appreciate not having to reiterate any of this.

On a lighter note, I’m an intent follower of the Beautiful Game, love the Cleveland Browns (but hate the Steelers more), and have a major Jones for old movies – particularly corny Bob Hope flicks and racy pre-code Hollywood films.

I prescribe to two philosophies on music. 1) There are only two kinds: good and bad. And 2) Be able to appreciate all kinds of music because you never know what kind your significant other will like.

I also consider myself a beer snob, but prefer malty brews to the American craft beer tendency towards hops, hops, and more hops.

Most pertinent to my move here is that I come to Seattle in search of a city to love.

Here's to the start of a beautiful relationship.

August 14, 2014 at 6:03 AM

FCC should listen to tech-savvy Seattle and preserve open Internet

Well, Seattle residents have spoken. Many of them, anyway, in favor of preserving net neutrality and against creating a two-lane Internet highway in which Internet providers could charge some users more for faster access and connectivity.

The Federal Communications Commission recently released about 1.1 million comments from its first comment period.  TechCrunch's initial analysis found the most-used word by citizens was "Comcast" followed by "Verizon" — and the bulk of what they had to say was not very nice. A second comment period ends on Sept. 10, so go to this FCC link to make your voice heard.

As The Seattle Times editorial board wrote on July 19, May 16, May 11, April 27 and Jan. 15, the open Internet should be preserved and providers should be reclassified as "common carriers" like most other public telecommunication services.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy called on the FCC to leave its echo chamber in the Beltway and hold public meetings around the country. "Most of (those who had commented on the proposed rules online) will not be able to come to Washington to participate in the roundtables that have been scheduled, but their voices are more important than industry lobbyists and members of Congress," Leahy reportedly wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Great idea. FCC, please come to Seattle.

Local citizens here have plenty to say. In June, Mayor Ed Murray joined with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to pen an op-ed for The San Francisco Chronicle in favor of preserving an open Internet. Here's an excerpt:

We stand for transparency and believe that all data on the Internet should be treated equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or mode of communication. We feel that innovation relies on a free and open Internet, one that does not allow for individual arrangements for priority treatment, also known as paid prioritization.

Last May, Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expressing a similar view. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson fired off his own letter on July 18.

The Verge's analysis shows Seattle ranked 5th on the list of cities where comments originated, an indicator of its position as a technology hub for start-ups and savvy Internet users. A different analysis of that information by the data analytics firm Quid for the Knight Foundation showed the West Coast is overrepresented in the comments about net neutrality, with Washington ranked 2nd overall.

NPR's Elise Hu provides some fascinating insight via the All Tech Considered blog, which produced a cluster map based on Quid's analysis of hundreds of thousands of comments, news stories and tweets. Hu reports the biggest cluster of commenters — 15 percent — said a "'pay-to-play' system will harm the diversity of the Internet."

In a Aug. 11 blog post for the Knight Foundation, Quid Co-founder Sean Gourley and head of intelligence services Sarah Pilewski reported on the six major narratives that have emerged from their research of public opinion on net neutrality:

1.     Don’t give us an Internet of haves and have-nots.

2.     Higher costs for consumers. “Don’t make me pay more for Netflix.”

3.     The FCC is a political organization with too many conflicts of interest.

4.     It’s a David and Goliath battle: startups versus cable companies.

5.     The Internet is a right and should be treated like utilities such as electricity.

6.     There should be no “free lunch” for content providers.



August 12, 2014 at 6:04 AM

Looks like SEIU organizing strategy may backfire -- on Washington taxpayers

More than a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling likely to shake the left side of Washington politics. But this state hasn’t heard in any official way what effect Harris vs. Quinn will have – and now it looks like we’ll have to wait for a legal decision sometime in the months or even years ahead.

But what a punchline this one will likely carry. The June 30 federal ruling concerns a clever strategy to beef up membership in the Service Employees International Union in Illinois, similar in every way to an SEIU organizing effort in Washington. Read between the lines and it is possible to see that Washington taxpayers may be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.

The union has become a national powerhouse in recent years by organizing workers who have not traditionally been considered state employees, like childcare workers and those who care for the elderly and disabled at home. These workers, often at or just above minimum wage, are the least like traditional punch-the-clock union workers of any on the typical state payroll. Which explains why organizing efforts began in earnest only a decade ago, after most other public employees were already under union contract.

The high court ruled these "partial public employees" in  Illinois are so different that they cannot be compelled to pay union dues or an equivalent “agency fee.” Without that compulsion, participation can be expected to fall, perhaps precipitously.

One might think the ruling would have a major effect in Washington. There are some 41,500 workers who are considered public employees for collective bargaining purposes only. Most of them are the 33,000 home health care workers who are required to pay dues or fees to SEIU Local 775. Similar arrangements govern childcare workers represented by SEIU Local 925 and interpreters represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees. Residential home care workers are represented by the Residential Care Council, but do not pay mandatory union fees.

Considering how much influence SEIU has had in Washington state politics in recent years, the ruling could be a major blow for the coalition of progressive interests that has increasingly led policy development for Democrats in the Legislature. Last election cycle, SEIU spent a whopping $2.9 million to influence elections in Washington state, most of it through independent campaigns for favored candidates. Other money went to Washington, D.C. to support the union's national program.

SEIU declines comment on its policies in this state, says Local 775 spokesman Jackson Holtz. But it has sent letters to home health care workers who have objected to paying agency fees in the past, saying their mandatory payments will stop. Conservative activists cheer: The system is stacked in favor of labor, complains Maxford Nelsen of the Freedom Foundation, the conservative Olympia think tank that has made union political spending a top issue.

But the final blow has yet to come. The day the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson promised an analysis of how the ruling would affect Washington state. Nearly six weeks later, state Sen. Jon Braun, R-Centralia, got tired of waiting and requested an informal opinion laying down the law. On Friday the attorney general’s office turned him down.

The problem is that a class-action lawsuit anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court decision was filed in federal court in Seattle last April on behalf of four Washington home health care workers. Centeno vs. the Department of Social and Health Services charges the mandatory dues were improper; Harris vs. Quinn makes it look like a slam-dunk. The suit is one of a number filed nationwide. The attorney general's office won't offer an opinion when litigation is pending, says spokeswoman Alison Dempsey-Hall.

That much is reasonable; the attorney general's office can hardly be expected to offer an evenhanded analysis when it must defend the state's position in court. But here is the point taxpayers might find chilling. The lawsuit seeks a full refund, plus attorney fees, from both the union and the state. Tens of millions of dollars are involved. Given the state’s joint and several liability laws, the money stands a good chance of coming from taxpayers’ pockets. Ultimately that was the cleverest thing about the union organizing strategy -- the state is on the hook.

August 11, 2014 at 6:13 AM

Why Gov. Jay Inslee goes against the grain industry

A letter from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee explains a curious decision that has bollixed up the wheat harvest throughout the western United States this year. Good bet it will infuriate more people than it will soothe.

In it the Democratic governor appears to say the issue is purely a labor dispute involving 44 union positions at the Port of Vancouver. The only acknowledgement of the enormous disruption he has caused for thousands of farmers and for the rural economy from the Washington coast to the Midwest is a throwaway line: “I remain committed to a healthy, thriving agricultural industry.”

The letter is the fullest explanation Inslee has offered – read it below. But first it might be useful to check in with agriculture, which has been doing all it can to reopen the United Grain Corp. terminal, a facility responsible for nearly 20 percent of the exports from the West Coast.

On July 6, in the 17th month of a lockout involving the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Inslee withdrew State Patrol protection for Washington grain inspectors who had been crossing what they called a dangerous picket line.


So the grain inspectors stopped inspecting and the grain-loaders stopped loading – all but the rare shipments that can get through without inspection. The state Department of Agriculture rebuffed an offer from UGC to pay for private security -- which couldn't have been a surprise for Inslee, because the department is under his control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rebuffed requests from farm-commodity organizations to send inspectors of its own. Now, as harvest begins, so has the meltdown many had predicted. “We’re already starting to see it,” says Lola Raska, executive director of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

Montana normally exports 80 percent of its crop, most through the Pacific Northwest. Raska says elevators already are stuffed and farmers without adequate storage are forced to store their wheat outside. She says it’s only going to get worse in future weeks, and if farmers have nowhere to go with their grain, they can expect prices to fall.

In Washington, wheat is a $1.2 billion industry; in Montana, $2 billion -- but maybe it will be a little less this year, thanks to the Vancouver situation. International news reports indicate Taiwan has backed off U.S. purchases for fear of market-wide disruption. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture the Taiwan Flour Mills Association says it purchased 1 million metric tons last year, but “a stoppage of this nature undermines the reputation of U.S. wheat in the marketplace.” Similar letters circulate from Korean and Chinese traders.

All of which makes Inslee’s explanation seem rather narrowly focused – like a governor looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Dated July 29, it comes in response to a query from congressional Republicans Jamie Hererra Beutler of Vancouver, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Colville, Doc Hastings of Pasco, and Greg Walden of Oregon. In providing State Patrol escorts, Inslee says,

“My intention was to provide enough time and space for UGC and ILWU to negotiate an agreement, and I was very clear with both parties that WSP’s services were temporary and not to be considered a standing arrangement.

“As is evident, negotiations during that eight-month period were unsuccessful, and over time it became increasingly clear that keeping WSP escorts in place was not leading to productive negotiations as intended. Therefore, in early June, I met with both parties and informed them of my impending decision to end the escorts, which I felt would provide them one last opportunity to come to the table. Unfortunately, UGC refused to return to negotiations.

“…The only sustainable solution to this impasse is for both parties to come together immediately and engage in good-faith negotiations. This is how it works in every other grain terminal in the state, where grain is being inspected without interruption.

“It is my understanding that the two sides will meet in negotiations this week, and I hope that they can find a solution. Those interested in seeing this shutdown resolved should strongly urge UGC and ILWU to come to the table and finally reach an agreement.

“As you know, agriculture is one of our state’s key economic sectors, and I remain committed to a healthy, thriving industry.”

So much for the harvest.

See the full letter here: GovInslee_letter_PacNWoffices_072914

August 11, 2014 at 5:45 AM

With the end of psychiatric boarding, a new mental health crisis decades in the making

The state Supreme Court's opinion on Thursday invalidating psychiatric "boarding" has thrown Washington's already-messy mental-health system into chaos.

An estimated 350 very ill people across the state are currently being warehoused in emergency rooms, usually without treatment, because the state hasn't funded enough psychiatric beds. State and county mental-health managers are scrambling to suddenly find beds for them. If they don't, the patients could be cut loose, with potentially dire consequences, particularly to themselves.

King County mental health director Jim Vollendroff told me Friday morning eight people were in limbo. "We're scrambling for those," he said.

What's disturbing is that Thursday's ruling, In The Matter of The Detention of D.W., seemed to catch the state by surprise, with no advance planning. The state Department of Social and Health Services and Pierce County lost this case before a Pierce County Superior Court Commissioner, a judge and at the Court of Appeals. Their thin legal argument contended that patients were better off in ER beds, even untreated, because they were "warm and dry." The result at the Supreme Court was an unequivocal 9-0 ruling with a simple message: if the state is going to detain some in psychiatric crisis, it must treat them.

It's also useful to remember the history of how Washington got to this point, returning to the inhumane warehousing of very sick people. "We’ve underfunded the mental-health system for decades, and it's now coming to haunt us," said Victoria Roberts, deputy director of the Department of Social and Health Services' mental-health division.

This bad scenario has been building since 1979, the year of Washington' involuntary-treatment law. Justice Steven Gonzalez, who wrote the Thursday Supreme Court ruling, summed up the history:

By 1981, Western State Hospital, which at the time acted as an evaluation and treatment center, was filled to capacity and refused to accept more patients until it was ordered to by this court. Overcrowding has continued.

Pierce County sued the state for discharging still-sick patients from Western State Hospital from 2001 to 2004, in some cases dumping vanloads of people off at Tacoma homeless shelters. Other lawsuits followed. The state loses, settles, promises reform. Rinse, repeat.

Washington neglected to fully fund the county-based outpatient mental-health system or the state-run psychiatric hospitals. On inpatient side, Between 2000 and 2010, Washington reduced beds certified to take involuntarily committed patients by 36 percent - a net decrease of nearly 200 - and plunged to near-last in the nation for access to psychiatric beds per capita.

At the same time, the Legislature, squeezed by the recession, also stripped $90 million from preventative outpatient care. More than $57 million alone was cut in the 2009-2011 budget.

The result was obvious: The number of people in psychiatric crisis jumped, particularly in King County. The involuntary treatment law says that people deemed so sick - that they'll likely hurt themselves or others - must be held in a facility able to treat their illness and restore them to health.

But without enough beds, the state turned to a little-known administrative rule, called "single bed certification." It was intended to allow involuntarily committed patients to be temporarily held in hospitals not certified to treat their mental illness, but able to provide medical care not available at standalone psychiatric facilities, such as dialysis.

The grim truth is that "single bed certifications" became a patch on a system full of holes. Instead of assuring intensive medical care, boarded patients often got little treatment at all. The number of "single bed certifications" nearly tripled since 2007, to 3,412 last year.

The Supreme Court described it accurately: "warehousing." But the high court isn't the only one that's found Washington's access to inpatient treatment contemptible. King, Pierce and Snohomish county judges have ruled DSHS in contempt in criminal cases where Western State Hospital is supposed to restore defendants' competency. Currently, an estimated 100 defendants are backed up in county jails, sometimes for months, waiting competency restoration ordered by both the law and by judges.

Now that boarding has been declared illegal, and the mental health system is in an imminent crisis, Washington is at a fork-in-the-road moment.

The state Legislature - and particularly Speaker of the House Frank Chopp - has prioritized better mental-health funding in the past two budgets. Chopp has quietly convened a small task force and chipped away the budget and policy backlog, adding operational funding for about 50 beds, as well as new preventative care teams.

But many of those beds haven't materialized because operating funds don't build buildings, and opening a psychiatric facility is expensive. The state Senate's Majority Coalition did a disservice to families with mental illness last session by not passing a capital budget, which included $11.2 million help build new facilities. Had the budget passed, Friday's crisis have would have been smaller.

More mental-health investment must not be crushed by the $2 billion budgetary iceberg of the education-funding McCleary decision, due next year. If it does, Thursday's In The Matter of the Detention of D.W. will be just the beginning of court oversight of Washington's mental health system.

August 7, 2014 at 12:33 PM

Will a red result in Washington Senate primaries keep Tom Steyer from spending?

There’s been plenty of talk about the role free-spending California billionaire Tom Steyer might play in Washington’s upcoming legislative races — the man whose wallet might make all the difference. But if the results of the Aug. 5 primary tell us anything, it is that his money might go further somewhere else.

The largely-Republican Senate Majority Coalition Caucus seems to be in firm-enough control of the upper chamber that it will not be easy to dislodge. If results hold firm through late ballot counts and the November election, its numbers will remain steady next session at 26-23.

Democratic partisans will disagree that there is anything good about it, but the coalition certainly is a big deal. The Washington Senate is the only legislative body in the blue West Coast states where Republicans have a toehold, and its effect has been to steer Washington's environmental policy down the middle while Oregon and California veer left. Steyer, a retired former hedge-fund manager with money to burn and a passion for climate-change legislation, offered plenty of hints before the primary that he might spend big in this state to change the chamber's color.

Last year Steyer worked with the League of Conservation Voters to spend more than a half-million dollars on Washington races. There is plenty more where that came from -- he has vowed to spend $100 million on races nationally.  And in Washington state specifically, he filed papers July 5 to form a new political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, which has just $100 in the bank but could be a vehicle for political contributions. And The New York Times reported Monday that Steyer discussed Senate-takeover strategy during a lunch with Gov. Jay Inslee at the governor’s mansion. Here's an excerpt from the Times report:

Mr. Steyer’s strategy is to spend heavily this fall to help defeat sitting lawmakers who oppose Mr. Inslee’s agenda and pave the way for the governor to move his policies through next year — an example, his critics say, of the insidious influence of big money from outsiders that makes local elections less local.

Here’s the trouble. Steyer may have the money and the inclination. But primary-election night results don’t indicate much chance of success. Money can do wonders in politics, but it would take quite a reversal to change control.

The narrowest head-to-head matchup in a key race appears to be Democrat Matt Isenhower’s Eastside challenge to Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, in the 45th Legislative District. Hill is leading by a comfortable margin, 54 percent to 46 percent.

In the 28th District, in the south Tacoma suburbs, Republican incumbent Steve O’Ban was ahead of Democrat Tami Green, both of University Place, 56 percent to 44 percent. For Federal Way’s open 30th  District seat, Republican Mark Miloscia was beating Democrat Shari Song, 57 percent to 43 percent. And that pickup would offset a likely Democratic gain in the 48th, where Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, is stepping down and Democratic state Rep. Cyrus Habib has 63 percent of the vote so far.

Strangest race of the bunch was that of state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, in the 35th Legislative District. Sheldon crossed party lines with Tom to create the coalition nearly two years ago. In his first election since, Sheldon was challenged from the left by Democrat Irene Bowling, and from the right by Republican Travis Coutoure. As of the latest ballot count, Democrat Bowling has the most votes, 35 percent, a sign that Democrats managed to turn out a big vote against a politician they regard as a turncoat. But Sheldon appears to have squeaked through the primary with 33 percent, beating Coutoure by nearly 400 votes in the election night tally. “It’s a little hard when you are neither fish nor fowl,” Sheldon says – especially when a squeeze play seems to be at work.

Plenty of Republicans lined up for Sheldon, including all 24 Republican senators, and business interests and others rallied to his support with $161,000. In an email circulating through GOP ranks, apparently from Coutoure, the furious candidate accuses the state Republican Party of “failing to acknowledge my existence.” Coutoure could not be reached. Presuming the percentages hold, Coutoure will be out, and it appears reasonable to add his 31 percent to Sheldon’s 33 percent, for a conservative vote that will put Sheldon well over the top come November.

It’s up to Steyer to decide where he wants to put his millions, and whether it matters how much he spends. But if return on investment is his issue, other states may offer easier gains.

August 6, 2014 at 6:02 AM

As border children seek safety, some leaders show cowardice

Children considered refugees of Central America will not be sent to military bases for temporary housing, including Joint Base Lewis-McChordU.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash, issued a statement Tuesday that appropriately summed up the need for Congress to fund efforts to address the border crisis and to fix the nation's broken immigration system.

“I received word today that the Department of Health and Human Services is no longer seeking facilities for temporary shelters for refugee children from Central America at this time, including Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the 10th Congressional District.

“I trust HHS to make the right decisions about what facilities are best for the refugee children, but this situation will not simply go away because the children are not staying in our district. As we continue to experience this humanitarian crisis, I support providing emergency funding to provide adequate assistance to care for the children, as well as resources for proper immigration proceedings.

“We are a proud nation of immigrants, and I will continue to push for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform.”

I was curious how this state would react if those kids did arrive. Would people protest their entry as they have in other cities? Or would they remember Washington's proud history of welcoming people who flee danger in their native countries?

As Sunday's guest column by former Washington Gov. Dan Evans made so clear, the U.S. has experienced its fair share of  immigration crises. He reminded readers that local churches and community groups responded in droves when the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived in the state after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Evans, a Republican, expressed his dismay with politicians of both parties who've failed to step up to what he views as their moral responsibility. He tells the story of one refugee couple in particular who rebuilt their lives from nothing, named one of their children Evans, and sent all six of their children on to college and successful careers:

The Nguyens are a stellar example of the success of our Vietnamese immigration program. Washington state has the third-largest Vietnamese population in the U.S., behind California and Texas. I’m exceedingly proud of the volunteer sponsors, support organizations and legislators who welcomed these productive new citizens to our state.

But that was 40 years ago. What should we do today about immigration?

First, receive the children fleeing from repression in Central America the same way we welcomed refugees from Vietnam 40 years ago.

Second, the U.S. House of Representatives should debate and pass its version of an immigration bill, which the U.S. Senate has already done. It is unconscionable to delay just because the issue is politically uncomfortable.

Then the House and Senate should meet promptly in conference to attempt to reach agreement on a comprehensive reform proposal.

Third, Congress should adopt rules that would allow highly educated foreign students to remain in the United States after graduating from U.S. colleges and universities, instead of requiring them to return home. These bright young graduates could help fill increasing worker shortages for high-tech jobs.

Fourth, our foreign-aid program should add a mini-Marshall Plan for Mexico and Central America. After World War II, the Marshall Plan reinvigorated a devastated Europe and helped immensely to create a peaceful and prosperous continent.

If the U.S. helped Central American nations build strong, free economies and working democracies, and treated Mexico as a true economic partner, the surge northward of desperate refugees would slow to a trickle. It would be an investment far more productive than a barbed wire-encrusted barrier that screams “STAY OUT.”

Election years offer a chance for politicians to bring up extreme positions to get votes, but knee-jerk efforts to shoo away children should grate on all of us. History ought to shine a dim light on those who take an ideological viewpoint on the humanitarian crisis at the border. The undocumented immigrants in question are innocent children, yet some urging deportation describe them as gang members and possible carriers of disease. As if this had something to do with Ebola.

The result? A good number of Democratic and Republican governors have been reluctant to help or have outright refused, as documented in news reports by USA Today and The Washington Post among others.

Most galling in my view is this statement by Republican Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter in a preemptive letter to the federal government, just in case it was considering whether to send those children to his state:

“It should be understood that the State of Idaho and its subdivisions will not be actively involved in addressing the humanitarian crisis the federal government has created. Idaho will not open itself to the unwelcome challenges with which other states have struggled at the federal government’s hands.”

That's right, kids. Fend for yourselves. Because the adults in this country already have enough problems. Your  fear of being killed or forced into a gang is none of our concern, even if the root causes of those problems are linked to U.S. foreign policy.

If there were a modern-day governor of the same stature as Dan Evans, that person would probably be Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. The Democrat was the first governor to advocate for the immigrant children after they began crossing into the U.S. Patrick's emotions were visible as he called upon his fellow citizens to show compassion for children sent by their parents on long arduous journeys to escape from violence.

Watch WBUR's raw video of that press conference:

Despite polls showing Massachusetts residents are opposed to housing the kids and Tuesday's news that no other bases would be considered for temporary housing, reports Patrick said he was proud of his state's "willingness to help."

Other leaders should be so brave. This border crisis is not over.






August 4, 2014 at 5:22 PM

How to investigate yourself and satisfy no one

Remember the Patricia Petersen case? The hearings officer who says her bosses at the state Office of Insurance Commissioner tried to pressure her into ruling in their favor? The office has finally released its report on the matter, and it looks like it ought to be filed with the Department of Told-You-So.

It is hard to imagine a vindication for a state agency as complete as this one. Not only does the report find the agency blameless, it also finds much to fault in Petersen's behavior. So much fault, in fact, that the Office of Insurance Commissioner is using the findings as the basis for formal disciplinary proceedings, and termination seems one likely outcome. Not to mention a lawsuit from Petersen, and recriminations before the Legislature.

Commissioner Mike Kreidler and his crew should have known better. An investigation like this was bound to satisfy no one.

Link to OIC report: OIC Investigation of Allegations of Ex Parte Contact

Link to public response from Petersen's attorneys: Concerned Citizens memorandum

Though the Office of Insurance Commissioner hired an independent attorney to write the report and notes that it had no control over his findings, even the most rigorous self-examination by a state agency would be suspect unless it reached damning conclusions about itself. Phil Talmadge, the former Supreme Court justice who is representing Petersen in the case, says he has filed a public-records request to find out exactly what the agency directed attorney Patrick Pearce to investigate. Was Petersen pressured by her superiors? Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee, thinks so.

“It's a question of trust at this point," Becker says. "Trust is a hard thing to gain and an easy thing to lose, and a lot of people have lost trust because of what is going on in that office, including this investigation."

For the last 19 years Petersen has presided over administrative hearings whenever insurance regulations or rulings are challenged, serving in a judicial role that is supposed to be every bit as fair and impartial as a judge in a courtroom. But starting late last year, when a spate of cases involving the Affordable Care Act began coming before her, she says a new deputy commissioner, James Odiorne, began pressuring her to rule in the agency’s favor. The Insurance Commissioner’s office maintains that it merely was trying to tighten up procedures and ensure that rulings reflected the latest thinking from the agency’s management. Matters came to a head when Odiorne dropped an unscheduled evaluation on Petersen in May, just as a critical case involving Seattle Children’s Hospital was coming before her.

Pearce’s report quickly dismisses the charge of pressure. He says Petersen had an “extremely strict” view that all matters concerning insurance regulatory policy needed to be aired during hearings, and he says it was proper for Odiorne to raise general issues outside of court, because he was not directly involved in prosecuting or defending cases. “The actions by Mr. Odiorne did not constitute improper ex parte communication,” he writes.

Instead, Pearce's report finds grevious fault with Petersen, for, among other things, sending a copy of her whistleblower complaint to one of the attorneys in the Children’s Hospital case – something Talmadge calls inadvertent as she sought legal help -- and for failing to disclose that her husband, a pediatrician had been a resident at the hospital more than 30 years ago, and occasionally supervises interns as a volunteer.

Talmadge says the report measures Petersen against a code of ethics for administrative law judges at the independent Office of Administrative Hearings, which doesn’t apply to a judge working for the OIC. Yet if the code did apply, he says it would be clear that Odiorne’s communications were improper. And Talmadge points to the strangest thing about the report: Though it says Odiorne did nothing wrong, it faults Petersen for not reporting him soon enough.

The Office of Insurance Commissioner says the report did the best job it could: “While it is understandable that some will disagree with the findings and conclusions of the independent investigator, the report represented the best option to get an unbiased and impartial accounting of the issues at hand,” says spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis in an email.

“The independent investigator, who has a background in law and who was selected through the contracting process that is available to state agencies, conducted several interviews and examined almost 2,000 pages of related documents to reach his conclusions.”

It is hard to imagine the report settling anything. Already Becker says she plans to launch an investigation of her own, using the powers of her committee. And one of the questions she will ask is why on earth the Office of Insurance Commissioner controls its own judges in the first place, rather than hearing cases at the Office of Administrative Hearings. More and more it is sounding like a case for true independence.

August 4, 2014 at 8:08 AM

State's papers: Inslee tactic at Vancouver boosts union at expense of ag industry

Newspapers across the state are chiming in against Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to choke off exports from the biggest grain terminal in the West, right on the eve of the wheat harvest. As described in a July 28 Seattle Times editorial, the governor’s unfortunate decision boosts the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at the expense of the grain-growing industry – which is worth $1 billion to Washington state alone, and more than that to other states.

Inslee has withdrawn State Patrol protection for state grain inspectors at the United Grain Corp. terminal, the biggest export facility in the west, where locked-out longshore workers are maintaining a picket line. Without protection, the state Department of Agriculture won't send the inspectors — it says the union pickets have threatened and harassed its crews. Without the inspectors, the wheat exports can't leave the port, except in rare cases. The terminal is essentially shut down.

Good news for the union in its contract talks, but rotten timing for agriculture. Harvest is about to begin. The grain needs to get through. The grain terminal is responsible for nearly 20 percent of the exports from the Pacific Coast, but all grain farmers stand to lose because of market disruption. That's because lower commodity prices may be the result. If Inslee’s decision boosts "working people," as the state Labor Council argues, there aren't many of them. The union staffs 44 positions. Meanwhile, Inslee creates hardship for many, many more hardworking farm families across the United States and for an entire farm economy that depends on the smooth flow of exports.

Other newspapers see it the same way. Negative notices are unanimous. The (Vancouver) Columbian says Inslee rewards “thuggish” behavior by labor:

Inslee, who was elected in part because of strong support from a variety of unions, has turned a tenuous situation into an unworkable one for the benefit of the ILWU. And in the process he has allowed intimidation tactics to give the union the upper hand.

This not only is harmful to the situation at the Port of Vancouver, but it sends a dangerous message to other unions and other companies throughout the state. Allowing thuggish behavior to triumph in labor disputes only invites future trouble and simply enables unions to view threats as an appropriate tactic. If harassment is allowed to alter the discussion between United Grain and the ILWU — and questions arise as to why state troopers did not address any harassing behavior — it will embolden other unions to embrace similar strategies.

The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review calls Inslee's decision rash:

Closure of the Port of Vancouver grain elevators not only threatens to interrupt export of Washington’s $1 billion crop, national farm groups are warning that the unprecedented breakdown of inspection activities at the port could endanger foreign buyer confidence in the reliability and integrity of the U.S. inspection system… Washington ports are fighting against other West and Gulf coast ports, including those in Canada, for cargo – grain, coal, cars, whatever. If our ports are not dependable, farmers from South Dakota… can exercise other options.

The Union-Bulletin in Walla Walla says agriculture deserves the same solicitude Inslee extends to Boeing and Microsoft:

Inslee needs to put the interests of the entire state — Eastern and Western Washington — ahead of politics and a labor dispute. The state needs to find a way to get the labor issues resolved or resume providing security for grain inspectors.

The (Portland) Oregonian says Inslee is applying pressure tactics at the wrong time:

By taking his action just weeks before the start of the annual wheat harvest, Inslee has pushed the stakes too high. Wheat is to eastern Washington and Oregon what Intel and Nike are to the Portland area or what Microsoft and Boeing are to the Seattle area – the economic foundation of the region. …It's time to harvest wheat and to harvest a new labor agreement. And it's the wrong time for the governor to be involved.

Meanwhile, the state Labor Council issued a broadside – a signed blog post from President Jeff Johnson – that denounces The Seattle Times for siding with agriculture instead of the labor union, and accuses the newspaper of "biased opinions" (as if there is another sort).

Once again The Seattle Times shows their absolute disdain for working people — never a thought for the workers and their families who have suffered 17 months of job loss and economic uncertainty — but instead the Times’ concern is getting this non-perishable commodity to market — money,  money, money.

“Shame on The Seattle Times. Their unabashedly biased opinions are not worth the paper they are printed on."

August 1, 2014 at 6:01 AM

Carrying on Lance Dickie's legacy with school supply drive

Seattle Times editorial writer Lance Dickie retired Thursday.

We will miss him.

Not only was Lance a prolific and persuasive writer throughout his 26 years at the paper, his volunteerism and sense of compassion was the inspiration for the newspaper's annual school-supply drive. Since 1999, this community effort has spared thousands of children the embarrassment of going to school without a backpack like their peers.

The board published this week's appeal to readers in Lance's honor:

“Like Thomas Jefferson, the patron spirit of The Times’ annual school supplies campaign, Lance Dickie believed the cost of uneducated children was much greater than a good education,” said Sue Sherbrooke, the YWCA’s chief executive.

Too many people talk about education as the great equalizer. Lance actually did something. You can too.

Between 1999 and 2013, the campaign raised more than $562,000. For the first time, the board is continuing this summer's effort without Lance at the helm.

A round of checks went out this week to Hopelink, YWCA of Seattle-King County-Snohomish County and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.With your help, the newspaper hopes to continue Lance's legacy of helping children access the tools of learning.

To give online, visit Email with questions. If you prefer to write a check, please send those to The Seattle Times School Supply Drive, P.O. Box C-11025, Seattle, WA 98111.




July 30, 2014 at 6:23 AM

Photos: Picturing the devastation of fire country

Southern Okanogan County, devastated by wildfire over the last two weeks, has the look of a war zone right after the combat has finished. The front has moved on, leaving ruined homes, blackened earth and the smell of smoke.

I took a drive through the area last weekend and found plenty of evidence of the pitched battle that raged after lightning July 14 touched off the Carlton Complex fire. Worst-hit is the town of Pateros, at the confluence of the Methow and Columbia rivers. Approximately 25 percent of the homes within the city limits and the area immediately surrounding the city were destroyed. Devastation was near-complete at the Alta Lake Golf Course just outside the city, where Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers counts 52 homes burned. He counts another 30 within the city limits, and a county-wide total of 300, from the Methow Valley to Brewster. He cautions that his numbers are neither precise nor complete: The complete picture of devastation is only beginning to emerge. “It’s so hard,” he says.


And anyone who walks the empty streets snapping pictures of the devastation and damage -- the burned-out foundations, the melted mailboxes, the toppled power poles -- can imagine the chaos of that night, and perhaps feel a bit uncomfortable, as the sense of human tragedy sinks in.

Check out The Seattle Times editorial published on July 23: "State’s wildfires a reminder of nature’s force"


July 30, 2014 at 6:20 AM

Marijuana, parenting and toking in public

When voters ended marijuana prohibition in Washington, we didn't end the civic duty not to be a public jerk.

That message hasn't gotten through. Nearly every parent I know — myself included — has a story similar to one posted on Facebook by my friend Natalie Singer-Velush.

She took three kids — two 8-year-olds and a 7-year-old — for a quick mid-afternoon trip to Golden Gardens on Sunday. Pails, shovels and ice cream in hand, they set up camp... and were enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke from three adults sitting upwind just a few feet away.

Natalie, editor of Parent Map magazine, said she didn't ask them to put out their joint because they planned to stay for just a few minutes. But she stewed about it, and posted this yesterday (emphasis is mine):

As a society we need to have the expectation that adults will carry themselves responsibly — new rights mean new responsibilities. Or maybe it's a reminder of old responsibilities -- expectations that really haven't changed for 100 years: Setting examples for young people; holding as our collective societal responsibility the mandate to keep young people safe and healthy even when they aren't our own children; behaving with common courtesy in public.

I voted to approve legal pot, in order to relieve our legal system from its ridiculous burden to criminalize marijuana use (and am half kicking myself now, because what's best for the state might not turn out to be best for my own family). Legal pot doesn't mean that on a summer afternoon I want my 7-year-old to get a contact high because some supposed adults cannot contemplate that puffing pot her way might violate an unwritten social code of decency.

Couldn't have said it better myself. Last winter, my son's middle-school ultimate frisbee match at Cal Anderson Park came to a sudden halt when the kids turned their noses to the marijuana smoke wafting from the nearby skateboard park. I yelled at the tokers to put it out, and was ignored. I support Initiative 502 for the same reasons as Natalie, but left the park wondering what we'd actually done.

I'm not a prude. I've been known to discreetly pour a beer into a cup in a public park, and would like to see Washington move further away from its puritanical alcohol laws. The issue of marijuana smoke is the nuisance. As with cigarettes, a person's vice shouldn't be foisted onto others, be it on a sidewalk or in a park. It's all about discretion, and being a good citizen.

We're also in a new era of legal marijuana, and the public is still coming to grips with its consequences. Blowing pot smoke toward a bunch of elementary-age kids at the beach is an excellent way to chip away at public support. (Check out last week's Seattle Times guest column: "Legalization did not give people the right to smoke marijuana in public.")

One response to public pot smoking is for stiffer enforcement. Seattle Police wrote just 82 tickets for public marijuana consumption in the first six months of 2014, which tells me they're very sporadically enforcing the new law. I'm fine with that low number, because the law is still being levied more heavily against blacks. Enforcement isn't the simplest answer to those who light up next to families.

Civic responsibility is. If you're the one smoking, find a nice quiet corner by yourself to exercise your new legal right. Hot box your car. Slip into the woods. Whatever. Just not right in the middle of the kids.

When I asked Natalie why she didn't confront the smokers at the beach, she said she didn't want to come off as a "raging prude," seeming to protect "precious snowflake children." She said she'd expect to find marijuana smoking at Golden Gardens at dusk. But the experience at the beach changed her reticence, and next time, she said, she'd probably confront them.

I feel the same. I don't want to be the fun fuzz, but parenting in the age of legal marijuana is tricky. (The University of Washington has a web page to help.) If you force parents to choose between their political views of drug law reform and preserving their kids' innocence (for a few more years), it's a no-brainer.

How about making it a little easier, Seattle. Don't be a jerk.

July 29, 2014 at 6:17 AM

MSNBC coverage of 'The Mikado' and stereotypes on stage

If you missed it on Sunday, MSNBC aired a news segment about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's production of "The Mikado" and the controversy about its use of yellowface, using non-Asian actors to portray all 40 Asian roles.

The MSNBC segment is worth watching if you were not able to attend a show before it ended its run on July 26.  Anchor Richard Lui covered the story from Seattle, capturing footage of the performance and the protest outside the Bagley Wright Theatre before the show began. He interviewed producer Mike Storie and a member of the Japanese American Citizens League.

The controversy began after my July 14 column, "The yellowface of 'The Mikado' in your face." I later blogged about the experience of watching the show in an Opinion Northwest post. Our letters to the editor blog Northwest Voices published perspectives from many readers.

If this makes you go, "Hmmmmm," and you want to dive deeper into the topic, here is more reading than you could possibly handle in a single sitting, sparked by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's production of "The Mikado." If you spot other writing worth sharing, please let me know at or let me know on Twitter @sharonpianchan


News coverage: "Stereotypes in 'The Mikado' Stir Controversy in Seattle

Northwest Asian Weekly: " 'Yellowface' controversy over the 'The Mikado' — Gilbert & Sullivan opera incites protest"

WQRX, the New York classical music rado station, news story: " 'Asian blackface' in 'The Mikado" stirs controversy in Seattle"

Statements by community groups:

Seattle Repertory Theatre announced community dialogue for Aug. 18: Artistic freedom vs. artistic responsibility

Japanese American Citizens League: JACL Objects to Usage of Yellowface and Stereotypes in Seattle Production of The Mikado

OCA Greater Seattle on "The Mikado"

Chinese American Citizens Alliance: "Yellowface in 2014? Is It 2014 or 1914?"

Radio interviews:

Mikado cast member and KIRO Radio host Dave Ross and I debated the issue on his show: "Seattle Times editorial columnist and Dave Ross go head-to-head over "yellow face" in "The Mikado"

Ron and Don Show on KIRO Radio: "Seattle Times columnist says opera starring Dave Ross is racist"

Opinion commentary:

Seattle Times guest opinion by Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society Producer Mike Storie and Board member Gene Ma: " 'The Mikado' is worth performing." (Editorial Page Editor Kate Riley and I personally invited supporters of the show to submit guest opinion offering a different perspective from my column.)

Seattle Times guest opinion by artistic director Rick Shiomi, who created a 2013 Minneapolis version of "The Mikado" without stereotypes or yellowface acting: "Making 'The Mikado' without Asian stereotypes"

Letters to the editor representing multiple perspectives in our Northwest Voices blog. Ken Narasaki, who co-wrote a play called "The Mikado Project," contributed one of the letters. guest commentary by Jeff Yang: "Yellowface staging of 'Mikado' has to end"

Angry Asian Man blog: "Real-life yellowface! Now playing in Seattle"

Seattle Times commentary by theater critic Misha Berson: "The ‘Mikado’ controversy: A call for calm discourse"

International Examiner editorial board: " ‘The Mikado’ controversy an opportunity to create and educate"

Atlantic Media's Quartz commentary by Gwynn Guilford: "It’s time to stop using 'exoticism' as an excuse for opera’s racism"

Stranger commentary by Brendan Kiley: The problem with The Mikado

ReAppropriate guest post by Sean Miura: "Undoing 'Mikado': Japan is not an imaginary place, and I am not a metaphor"

The You Offend Me You Offend My Family blog has a humor take (I approve of the KKK and apocalypse scenarios in this humor post): "6 Times When it’s OK for white people to don yellow face"

Actress Erin Quill writes her own lyrics for a song from "The Mikado" on her blog: "I have 'A Little List' too — buckle up"

Actress Lucy Sheen, on a personal blog, responds to the KIRO Radio debate with Dave Ross where he asks whether Japanese actors who wear kabuki-theater makeup are playing Caucasian roles: "Kabuki is NOT white face"

Bo Lim, an associate professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University, used "The Mikado" to discuss about stereotypes still used in evangelical teachings in a post for the Sojourners website: "Why Evangelicals Should Care About 'The Mikado' Controversy If They Care About Reconciliation in the Church"

July 28, 2014 at 6:09 AM

B.C. premier vows sewage treatment for Victoria — someday

It took more than a month, but the premier of British Columbia in Canada has finally answered a letter from Washington’s congressional delegation about the million gallons of raw sewage the city of Victoria flushes every hour into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

And somehow that seems fitting, since it has been more than 20 years since Washington started beating the drum about Victoria’s plumbing problems. No one north of the border seems to be in any particular hurry.

The Democratic members of Washington's congressional delegation wrote B.C. Premier Christy Clark June 13 to urge that the province find a sewage solution "as soon as possible." Clark's rather tardy response promises to hold the southern end of Vancouver Island to a requirement that it develop a new sewage treatment plant. But she fails to address the key question. When, exactly? Will she even be in office? Which century?

We have made it clear that sewage treatment will happen,” she says. “That is not up for debate. Failure to comply with these obligations would result in the possible loss of provincial and federal funding, as well as other potential penalties under federal and provincial laws.

Thank you again for writing, and I am pleased to provide you with this response.

So much for that. The greater Victoria area, home to 300,000 people, is the last major metropolitan area in North America —  some say the Western Hemisphere — to dump its raw sewage at sea. Washington officials see nothing quaint and charming about those backward island ways. They shamed the provincial government into taking action as B.C. bid for the 2010 winter Olympics. For a time it looked like a plant might actually be built — first in 2016, then in 2018. But the plan seemed to go down the drain three months ago when the town council in Esquimalt nixed a plan to build a $721 million (U.S.) sewage treatment plant. So far, no plan B has emerged.

Clark's letter really adds nothing new to the debate. Significantly, she stops short of announcing that she will overrule the Esquimalt town council. The letter merely reiterates a warning provincial government officials have put forward numerous times during the debate. If islanders don't bring the plant online by 2018, they risk losing financial support from the provincial and federal governments, which were going to pick up two-thirds of the tab. It is hard making much of that threat. If the cost of sewage treatment was too high for islanders when they were paying only one-third of the cost, it is hard to imagine them enthusiastically paying 100 percent of the bill. It is equally hard to imagine them voting for politicians who would force them to do it.

From these shores it seems easier to ask the big question: When will the Canadians ever do anything? It is a question that rankles, as state and federal regulators in this country seek to impose water-quality standards so stringent they can't be measured and contemplate regulations that would prevent boaters from flushing treated sewage into the Sound, even one tank at a time. Many Canadians continue to argue their massive disposal-at-sea poses no harm at all. America's position is sounded in a formal way in the letter of complaint from Washington's congressional delegation. But there might be a better way to put it: Oh, poo.

Below is the text of the June 13 letter, signed by Washington’s eight House and Senate Democrats: U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Reps. Suzan DeBene, Rick Larsen, Derek Kilmer, Jim McDermott, Adam Smith and Denny Heck.

Dear Premier Clark:

We are very disappointed to learn that the development of a new sewage treatment facility at McLoughlin Point has been delayed. For the last 20 years, American citizens have waited for solutions to water quality issues linked to British Columbia’s sewage discharge. Unfortunately, while Canada has acknowledged the importance of addressing this concern, there is now no plan to mitigate the persistent water pollution from Victoria, British Columbia.

The strength of our economies in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia depends on the health of our waterways and natural resources.  Washington state supports more than 67,000 commercial fishing jobs, in addition to our vibrant recreational fishing, boating, watersport, and tourism businesses.  The practice of discharging this type and volume of waste violates environmental standards commonly held by our two nations. Furthermore, while significant treatment efforts have been made on the United States side of our maritime border, the effectiveness of these efforts is undermined without cross-border collaboration, treatment, and restoration activities.

In fact, scientists in both of our home countries have seen perpetually decreasing dissolved oxygen levels in our waters—an outcome linked with untreated sewage discharge. These changing dissolved oxygen levels endanger sensitive aquatic habitats vital to the Puget Sound’s marine economy. Together, we must work to ensure that we have adequate wastewater treatment facilities  so that we can improve dissolved oxygen levels and the overall water quality in the Salish Sea to protect human health and the marine ecosystem.

Our countries have worked hard to coordinate international collaboration on major environmental problems in the past and we hope to work together to solve this problem.  Since its inception in 2003, the U.S. and Canada have established the largest, most comprehensive ecosystem conference in the region – the biennial Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference.  This conference is a great example of how the U.S. and British Columbia have collaborated to bring together experts from interdisciplinary fields to discuss scientific research and chart a course for protecting and restoring the Salish Sea ecosystem.

The Salish Sea is an economic and cultural lifeline for the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.  In fact, Washington state’s maritime economy supports $30 billion in economic activity each year and provides 148,000 jobs. Due to the importance of these waters to both our countries, we ask that you work promptly to resolve this issue. Furthermore, as we continue to work towards restoring the Salish Sea for generations to come, we welcome ongoing collaboration on restoration, research and preservation efforts to best serve our people and our waterways.  We hope you will stand with us as we work to improve the quality of our waters and reduce unnecessary pollution.

July 28, 2014 at 6:05 AM

New York Times joins Seattle Times in calling for marijuana legalization

In its Sunday editorial, The New York Times editorial board called for the repeal of the federal prohibition on marijuana, adding an important national voice to the movement being led by Washington and Colorado. A series of editorials on the topic  will run through the week. In the clip above, NYT Editorial Page Editor Andy Rosenthal explains the board's decision, noting that his staff has been watching what has been going on in Washington and Colorado and the many states that have legalized medical marijuana or reduced penalties. The lead editorial reads:

There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.

This is a significant development. Washington and Colorado, as the only states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, have been making the case that the federal government should not stand in the way of the states' efforts to make these changes work. The conflicts between federal and state law remain serious. For instance, it was unclear whether marijuana businesses would be able to get services from a federally insured bank. In February, the federal government issued rules to encourage banks to provide banking services to marijuana businesses in Washington and Colorado. How this rolls out remains to be seen.

And, in a May 4 editorial, The Seattle Times called for the U.S. Justice Department to give the agency that regulates dams in Eastern Washington's Columbia Basin Project the go-ahead to allow its water to be used on cannabis crops.

The  New York Times editorial board adding its influential voice to the national debate will be a boost for this movement led by the states.

The NYT's reasoning mirrors that of The Seattle Times editorial board when it published a February 2011 editorial calling for the legalization of marijuana. Retired Seattle editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey famously wrote about smoking dope on a camping trip for The Seattle Times Opinion pages three years before NYT columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about trying a candy bar made with cannabis on a research trip to Colorado.

Ramsey and colleague Jonathan Martin recently were honored for their editorials recommending solutions for the state-federal conflict with the Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial writing.

July 27, 2014 at 5:04 AM

Chat rewind: Readers discuss Prop. 1 to create Seattle Park District

Want to talk about Proposition 1 to create a Seattle Park District? The proposition on the Aug. 5 ballot would create a Seattle Park District to fund the city's park system.

Join us for a live chat on Tuesday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. with panelists who support and oppose the Proposition.


Don Harper, part of the Our Parks Forever campaign, opposes the passage of Proposition 1.

Brad Kahn, the board chair of the Seattle Parks Foundation, is a volunteer on the Seattle Parks For All campaign that supports the passage of Proposition 1.

Thanh Tan, multimedia editorial writer, who has covered Proposition 1 for the editorial board.

Others who will be on the chat:

Sharon Pian Chan, associate opinions editor, will moderate the discussion.

Nikolaj Lasbo, producer/editor for digital opinion engagement, will produce the chat.

All readers are also welcome to comment, ask questions and answer the questions on the chat. Our goal is to create an online forum for civil debate.

July 25, 2014 at 12:01 PM

When we fail to educate our children, our future is bleak

Editor's note: These are remarks Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen made to the Rotary Club of Seattle, which is also known as Rotary Club No. 4, on Wednesday.

Good afternoon.

As a former member and program chair of Rotary No. 4, speaking to you is a privilege. A privilege that brings with it an obligation to use this forum constructively, which is precisely what I intend to do.

I will address the most important public policy issue in my 34 years as a newspaper publisher in Washington state: the sad condition of our state's public education system,  a system that fails a shocking number of our children, and imperils our state’s economic future and quality of life. It is a system that fails us at every level: K-12, early learning, post-secondary.

Consider these unacceptable outcomes:


We graduate only 18 percent of our high-school students work-ready or college-ready. Let’s break that number down: One-quarter of our high school students fail to graduate.  Of those who do graduate, barely half enter post-secondary education, such as college or workforce training. Of those, half of them require remedial help. The result?  Only 18 percent are actually college- or work-ready.

This translates into an almost unfathomable 82 percent failure rate from our K-12 system.

Early Education (pre-K):

The research is unequivocal. The majority of brain development takes place before children enter school. Yet, this year we failed to fund more than 25,000 qualified 3- and 4-year-olds for even the most basic early learning.

That’s 25,000 of our toddlers we have kicked to the curb for a lifetime of unemployment, minimum wage and even jail. We repeat this year after year, knowing that quality preschool is the basic foundation of a functional education system and the evolution of a successful adult citizen.

Hallelujahs to Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess and to Mayor Ed Murray for their courage in providing leadership for Seattle to become a model for the state and nation in how to develop a high quality, outcome-based, egalitarian pre-K system.

College and Post-Secondary Education

Our state’s college system is a great irony. Our 32 community and technical colleges and our six four-year baccalaureate universities all boast strong quality and excellent graduation rates.

  • We have severely restricted access through unconscionable state disinvestment and underfunding.
  • We have invoked unacceptably high student taxes — so-called tuition
  • And we have fostered unbearable student debt.

The consequence is that our production of baccalaureate degrees is among the worst in the nation — 46th worst, to be precise.


How we got to these terrible outcomes is a sad, several-decade saga of:

  • Legislative disinvestment
  • Public disinterest
  • And voter lethargy

The bubble economy preceding our 2008 financial collapse blinded us to any number of serious public policy issues, including the steady deterioration of our state’s public education system.

The subsequent "new reality economy" we now live in is forcing us to face up to our broken public education system, and how that system is fueling the ever-growing, wealth and opportunity gaps — gaps that undermine democracy and stability as well as economic vibrancy.

A $15 minimum wage makes for good Seattle Times headlines. Unfortunately, it will not stop growing inequality, or fix a sluggish and uncertain economy.

Education is the one proven way to create jobs, reduce unemployment and begin to close our wealth and opportunity fault lines.

The good news? Is there good news? Do we have time to right the sinking public education ship?

Yes, we do. But first, it takes awareness of the crisis and an understanding of the unacceptable outcomes.  This is a matter of the long-term well-being for every one of us and our families. It is the moral obligation we have to make this again the land of opportunity — to make Washington state an economic juggernaut where an individual's future is determined by the individual and the quality of the public education system and not by the zip code they are born in or live in.

The first step is awareness and acknowledgement. That is the easy part. The tougher part is the will to change. Can we embrace the current unacceptable outcomes with the outrage they deserve? Let’s hope so — the window is short.

From today through the end of the 2015 legislative session is a critical period.

Here is what you need to know:

The Supreme Court

Two years ago our state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a case, which has come to be known as the McCleary decision. The Seattle Times cautiously agreed with their ruling that the Legislature needs to spend more money on education. Indeed, we hoped this would become a catalyst for spending in the two areas of serious underfunding: early education and higher education. And that it would accelerate the reforms needed to improve our abysmal K-12 outcomes.

However, we were uneasy because of our belief that the Supreme Court made two errors:

  1. That our constitution limits our paramount education responsibilities to only K-12, which is certainly not the case in terms of providing an adequate education in today’s world.

  1. That they seem to be indicating money is the only thing that matters in K-12, and not outcomes.

Unfortunately, our caution at that time has proved well-founded. Subsequently, the court has embarked on a dangerous path by insinuating itself into the job of the Legislature with an erroneous message that only money and only K-12 matters.

The Washington Education Association

You also need to know about the Washington Education Association.

The vast majority of K-12 teachers are thoughtful, caring professionals who deserve far more admiration then they receive. And deserve far better representation than the WEA gives them. Instead of representing teachers as true professionals, the WEA has been the defender of the status quo, which means perpetuating the bad K-12 outcomes that fail to graduate or prepare 82 percent of our kids for college or work.

Three recent examples:

  1. The WEA is suing to overturn the voter-approved charter-schools initiative, just as the first charter schools prepare to open.
  2. Earlier this year, WEA officials goaded lawmakers into a decision that caused Washington to become the first state in the nation to lose its waiver under the No Child Left Behind law and to cause school districts to lose control over $41 million to help children most in need.
  3. The final example is the WEA’s misguided Initiative 1351, which is on this fall’s ballot.

On the surface, I-1351 looks like a good thing — reducing class size. However, the research is clear: After the first three grades, across-the-board reduction in classroom size would not improve our lousy outcomes. What would improve is the dues coffer of the WEA, by several million dollars a year.

McCleary, plus 1351

If the Supreme Court is successful in its McCleary effort and the WEA is successful with their dues-expansion program, the consequences are truly devastating. Our state biennium general fund is about $33.8 billion. K-12 already receives about 45 percent, or about $15 billion. (Higher education receives about 8 percent  or $2.7 billion; early education receives less than 1 percent.)

Each of these two actions would cost about $3.5 billion, resulting in about $7 billion in increased taxes and diversion of funding from other parts of the budget.

This would devastate funding for early education, post-secondary education and much of our social-service system, including our critical needs in foster care and mental illness.

But another irony:

Even if all this came to fruition and we could actually pump $7 billion into K-12, the bad K-12 outcomes would not change, and the destructive lack of access to early education and post secondary would continue.

Is this the Washington we want to live in? I don’t think so.

We should be proud that ours is the only state in the union whose Constitution declares that education is the paramount duty of the state and that the state must provide an "adequate" education for all of its children.

In today’s world, an adequate education is 3 to 23 and beyond.

  • Early education is the foundation of later school success and a productive, healthy adult life.
  • A healthy K-12 system with great outcomes for all is essential for our state’s future, as we increasingly compete against other states and other countries.
  • Affordable access to post secondary, from our production of baccalaureate degrees to technical training is absolutely essential in today’s world.

There is simply no investment the state could make with a greater return than education at every level. But at every level, it is critical that those precious tax investment dollars have transparency, accountability and are tied to outcomes — outcomes that can put us on the path for long-term prosperity and well-being.

Back to the question: Do we have the will? This Rotary Club and everybody in this room has the power to make a difference. But the time is running short.

Rotary No. 4 has always set a standard for "service above self." Stepping up to this issue — quality public school outcomes — is the most important service Rotary No. 4 could provide.

There is a lot of rhetoric and misinformation about education these days. Stay focused on the handful of outcomes that matter.

  • All children should start kindergarten ready to learn.
  • Children who fall behind, at whatever grade level, must get the help they need.
  • All students should graduate high school ready to go to college or vocational training.

We should not fail a single one of our children.

Use your influence and your megaphone to help inspire and motivate our community. Ask informed education questions of candidates for the Legislature. Stay in touch with your elected representatives and consistently express your concern. This is about our future, and it’s about our children.

Will Washington state maintain the failed status quo? Or will we become a national/world model for creating a high-functioning successful public-education system?

The choice is yours.

Thank you.

More from this blog Previous entries

The Seattle Times