Puget Sound cleanup agency gets a new director
Anthony Wright, the recently retired commander of the Seattle District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, takes over this week as the new executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership.
Seattle Times environment reporter
Workers at the small state agency trying to lead restoration of Puget Sound will begin a new era Monday: They will answer to their third leader in less than five years.
Anthony Wright, who recently retired as commander of the Seattle District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will take over as the new executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. He replaces Gerry O'Keefe, who took the reins 16 months ago from the agency's first director, attorney David Dicks.
Wright gained prominence in 2009 as the blunt, forceful colonel who convinced Congress to set aside emergency funds to repair the storm-weakened Howard Hanson Dam rather than risk a catastrophic breach.
But his appointment to the $137,304 per year job also is an acknowledgment there may be rough waters ahead for cleanup of the region's signature waterway.
The state and federal government face looming budget crises.
The agency's two biggest champions, Gov. Chris Gregoire and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton — who as former chair of the House Appropriations Committee steered millions of dollars toward Puget Sound work — are both leaving office this year. Details about the agency's work often appear complicated and murky to the public.
Martha Kongsgaard, who chairs a leadership council that helps steer the agency, said the governor hired Wright because she wanted the agency to have a much-higher profile.
"I think the governor wanted to energize us," Kongsgaard said. "She wanted to put some new focus and oomph in the partnership and have it be a little, maybe, nosier, so that her legacy has a better chance of surviving through many governors.
"Tony's a well-known guy who has come in his fatigues and said some pretty strong things about what it's going to take to recover the Sound," she said.
"He's got the street cred of being a serious Army Corps fellow who stuck his neck out a lot in this region and was listened to. He can go toe to toe with anyone. He's a doer."
Kongsgaard praised O'Keefe, who will be taking a position with Ecology, as a solid manager that steered the partnership through an earlier rocky period.
His predecessor, Congressman Norm Dicks' son, resigned in the fall of 2010 to take a job at the University of Washington.
Earlier that year, state auditors had found the partnership had inappropriately spent thousands of dollars on things like monogrammed jackets and promotional gifts and sometimes ignored state contracting rules.
"During last year's legislative session, the House GOP zeroed out the partnership's budget," Kongsgaard said.
"It didn't go anywhere, but it was definitely a shot across the bow. I think Gerry (O'Keefe), through the course of that session, really calmed a lot of nerves."
In announcing Wright's appointment this month, Gregoire praised the retired colonel as a leader and a relationship builder. She also said she's elevating the job to a cabinet-level post.
Wright, meanwhile, said he's getting up to speed on the partnership's efforts. He also is aware that a new governor could decide to replace him in January.
But Wright said his work with the Army, repeatedly changing jobs and serving in management positions from Kansas to war-torn Iraq, has trained him to take over far bigger bureaucracies in short order. At the Corps, he oversaw $2 billion in construction projects, from restoration to levee work, in a few short years.
"I've figured out how to quickly assess an organization and gather information about what needs to happen right away," he said. "I'm going to be meeting with lots of people and reviewing a lot of documents, trying to ensure that we're charting a path that gives us the most results."
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or email@example.com.