Hey, democracy can work

Lessons learned (or not) from the RFA


The recent local election on the Regional Fire Authority was interesting, and eventful, and not because of the electoral result itself. In politics (all history?) the lessons learned, if at all, come from an open-minded analysis of the event itself. If we don’t think, and discuss, fully what happened, and why, we are, as they say, simply destined to repeat our mistakes.

Two city councils, in their infinite, albeit self-interested, wisdom decided to give to the voters the opportunity to create a Regional Fire Authority. They said: “let’s ask the people what they want”, the ultimate democratic response to a public issue involving both public safety and higher taxes. Yeah, sure, it’s an easy vote for elected representatives when they might have a queasy feeling that, as their own consultant said, they were going to have a difficult time convincing their voters we would actually get anything for our increase in taxes, to pass the decision on to the voters. 

With no real organized opposition campaign, an electoral history of consistent and large victories in a (at least one) town who always votes “yes” on police, fire and EMT bonds, the “brand” of firefighters, and the overwhelming power and money of the firefighters union and two cities (who spent part of it on a likely illegal flyer), all smart political money was on a resounding “yes” vote – even more than the 60% they needed to win.

Well, a funny thing happened on the supporters’ way to their celebratory victory party. The more people learned about the measure – and from the growing list of opponents, since the supporters were reticent to the point of awkward and revealing silence, on the details and supposed benefits – the more those who opposed the measure grew. A few local community leaders, who by the way, offered their support when the measure was just an idea a year and a half ago, to make it “better,” became more and more impatient and oppositional as the supporters were seemingly uninterested in, you know, the details, and just wanted to spend the new money.

In this election it is important to note the people and teams for and against the measure: virtually all local institutions (City Councils, Firefighters Union, The Olympian) were supporters, and virtually all citizens, good government groups and volunteer organizations (Common Cause, Indivisible, Senior News, etc.) were against the measure.

As uncomfortable and as embarrassing as it might was for the supporters, that is exactly how Democracy is supposed to work. Even better in this case as a seasoned and well financed political player was beat, badly, by, well…the people.

Hubris is never a good look

The day after their loss, a city council member and leader of the “yes” side was quoted as saying they lost only because of the misinformation put out by the opponents. This is particularly sad because: 1) the public did rely heavily on the opponents because they were the ONLY ones putting out facts and details of the proposed measure. The Cities flyer was transparently propaganda, the public appearances of supporters were mostly void of detail and possible negative impacts on residents and taxpayers, and the perceived arrogance of the supporters was on full display as the public really did want more, and truthful information, and 2) in a town which always voted “yes” on these type of measures, it surely took a lot for them to say “no” this time, and in such great numbers. To allege that it can only be because they were somehow fooled is to disrespect voters and ignore their desire for substantive and truthful information about something as important as their safety and their taxes.

Like petulant adolescents, some leaders of the campaign for the measure showed disdain for the voters, and disbelief that the political establishment could lose. Perhaps and worst of all, they displayed neither humility nor self-awareness. 

Olympia is often portrayed as the left fighting the far left. The City Council often attracts, especially of late, some who are “social justice warriors” and would probably rather be in the State Legislature or Congress working on issues like climate change or racial inequality. I voted for many of them in part because I share their more global perspectives. But people in Olympia (or Seattle, Portland or San Francisco) also usually left of center, want the potholes fixed, to feel safe walking around their downtowns, and the fire and police services to be effective and efficient.  

Clearly, most of the Council wanted to shed the fire department to make room (read: money) available for parks, and other laudable, but not primary functions of a (especially small) city. It’s up to us, residents, and voters, to tell our local, city, elected leaders that they need to focus first on what is their legal, and political responsibilities. They might not be sexy, or glitzy, and they sure won’t feel particularly important in this existential crisis world we live in – but that’s the job.

Can we finally agree The Olympian editorials have little influence?

 The Olympian, yes, even as a mere shell of its former self, tries to be relevant in local matters by editorializing about local elections. In this case, they seemed to write a piece that highlighted reasons voters should not support the measure and then, in weird verbal jujitsu endorsed the measure.

With its readership so low and the demographics of its readership so much older and whiter than the general population, it should come as no surprise that The Olympian is (at least) a step away from popular opinion. Certainly, their contorted editorials which seem stuck between “getting it” and their almost reflexive institutionalism, can only leave, what few readers are left, scratching their heads. Anyway, they certainly called this one wrong and their role as a thoughtful arbiter on local electoral matters, if it ever existed, is gone now.

Thank goodness Thurston County readers have The J.O.L.T., which clearly was the go-to source for people who wanted to educate themselves on the ballot measure.

         ~ Russ Lehman, Olympia

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of  The JOLT's staff or board of directors.  Got something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents? Send it to us and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.


4 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • dlg2022

    Bravo Russ! So well expressed!

    Wednesday, May 10, 2023 Report this

  • Citizen

    Good analysis. Well done. Thank you.

    What remains now is should City council members who, expended tax dollars for consultants and city employees working on the issue, advertising, and a special election all in support the RFA be reelected?

    I would say no. In addition to the article's reasons, I would add the cost to taxpayers.

    Has the complete taxpayer cost been disclosed? Anyone?

    Thursday, May 11, 2023 Report this

  • Larry Dzieza

    Wow! A tour de force of political analysis and opinion.

    Thursday, May 11, 2023 Report this

  • Georgewalter

    It's odd that the writer of this piece, or anyone, would think it inappropriate for Olympia City Council members to be "social justice warriors." That's exactly what they should be.

    What is homelessness if not a social justice issue. Having a safe downtown involves social justice issues. Making certain that the law is enforced even-handedly and without prejudice, that's social justice at it's core.

    It seems that the author, anxiously wanting to crow about the rejection of the proposed RFD, cast his net much too widely. In doing so, it makes me question the wisdom of his entire analysis.

    Sunday, May 21, 2023 Report this