Interview with Kittitas County Dist 1 Commissioner Cory Wright
By Bruce Coe
Central Washington Sentinel (updated) Aug 23, 2019~
Here is a recent two part interview with Cory Wright, Kittitas County Commissioner, District 1. The interview questions concentrate on the core philosophies of the Sentinel: Vision, Transparency and Accountability.
Cory Wright has held the position of Kittitas County Commissioner District 1 for 9 months now and has recently announced his candidacy for office in an election to confirm his appointment of last January. Wright replaced commissioner Paul Jewell as the representative for Kittitas County Commissioner, District 1. We sat down to chat with Commissioner Wright about his experiences as a new commissioner, the issues he is interested in, and his vision for Kittitas County
Wright starts off by offering this, “Government ain’t business!” He continues, “That’s probably the biggest thing. I’ve certainly brought a lot of the things I have learned in business to my position as commissioner. But I’ve had to learn that every decision I come to has to be agreed to by at least one other person. You can’t just have a conversation with people and then make a decision. There’s always more to it than just the merits of the decision.”
He continues by observing that the public process was a little intimidating to him at the start. He agrees with the concept, but it was foreign to the processes he had become used to in the private sector. What were the business principles he has been able to bring to the county?
“Within the internal management processes themselves, the concept of setting expectations and delivering a product that you and a customer agree on. In this case it means setting a level of service that the people want and figuring out a way to deliver those services with the staff and the budget you have.
“There is a lot of frustration internally at the county with overlap of responsibilities and I don’t think the county does a great job of documenting processes, procedures and expectations. I remember looking at a long set of management principles hanging on the wall and thinking, ‘this is silly’. How is someone supposed to look at this and figure out if they are doing their job, and doing it correctly?”
So the County’s management team started off with the basics – determining core values and working up from there. His goal in his term is to get those solidly in place so whoever succeeds him in the future does not have to worry about it.
Within the structure of the Board of County commissioners different responsibilities are assigned at the start of the year, and Wright handles the internal services portion of those areas. He wants to get the level of services smooth and running efficiently. Figuring out who is responsible for directing different departments had become an issue, with department heads not really understanding who they were responsible to for their actions.
“These are things in the business word that save money and time and additionally, retain employees. I spent three years in my past job in quality management and it seems so basic to me. We’re heading for a predictable process with no ambiguity so the customer, in this case the citizens, get what they expect.”
He says that right now, more than anything, they are at a point where the different departments are figuring out where they are in their internal relationships. As a process, it is a strong beginning. “We have to show people that we are committed, and they figure out pretty quickly whether or not you are committed to that change.”
Wright says that the commissioners rely heavily on the Comprehensive Plan for their responses to land use and planning issues. His biggest issue is how to get more use out of the land base that comprises Kittitas County. He says that the county has to go back to some of the agreements they have made in the past and modernize the land uses within these agreements. He admits that there is not much land left to work with since the county only retains about 14% of its land base for varying uses, the rest being locked into agriculture, commercial forest or public ownership.
The issue of rural lands, a Growth Management Act designation that is supposed to retain the ‘rural character’ of private land, is important to him. “How do we get creative about those remaining lands and their uses? How do we work with our Rural Lands? Our comp plan drives a lot of our reactions to those issues, and there is a question about how we will satisfy the demands for housing growth and economic development within these areas.”
He concedes that the Growth Management Act needs a “whole lot of tweaking”, and sees that as both a State and County issue. But he also sees areas of cooperation that both entities can agree to work within.
Update added 8/8/19
We begin the second part of our interview with County Commissioner Cory Wright by talking about how to ensure that accommodation for growth appears in the county’s next comprehensive plan update. Commissioner Wright states, “I think it is certainly possible. I think we can push the county to establish a framework that contains a county economic plan, but there is no unified economic plan right now. We seem to be handing off that control and then call it a job well done. We hire consultants, pay them money, and say that we paid them a lot of money so they must be good.”
Wright stated that almost every regulation in place represents one more hurdle to a person being able to attain their goals. And that the State Legislature seems to want counties to increase their level of regulation.
“I think it is critical for us to recognize that we still have the ability to shape our future within the regulations that currently exist. What is the penalty for non-conformance? A good example of this is when the state said that the county logos on our trucks were out of compliance because they were hard to read – too small. So, we had a graphic designer design three new logos. And I said, ’why are we doing this right now? Shouldn’t this be a part of a broader discussion on how the county is represented in all their logos?’”
“There’s a state mandate that we are supposed to be buying hybrid vehicles. Why? What is the penalty? I’m willing to have the conversation about penalties and if it means that we are going down a path that takes us where we do not want to be, then we need to evaluate that. No one is asking, ‘why?’”
On rural development Wright is unequivocal. “The State of Washington has a vision and this is what it looks like: we are going to have much denser housing within cities and their UGA’s (Urban Growth Areas). Outside the cities, by and large, will be in public ownership or a small percentage of private owners. Ultimately you will live in your little unit, and rural use will be owned by the public or by the few, the people who have the means to own high-end properties.”
“That is why the question of solar was so frustrating. I went to the farmers, the multi-generational families and they said, ‘no solar’ but the folks who had bought less productive land or who were not committed to agriculture were saying ‘we have to have a use for that land, I need to make it work. If I can’t make it work, I will have to sell it for development and I don’t want to do that.’”
“We’ll make it happen but the installation of solar is driven by subsidies, and there seemed to be no appetite from the general public on the issue.”
On providing for a county administrator, “The job of a county administrator is not only to manage downwards but to manage upwards and outwards as well – the image that is going out to the community. They have a responsibility to show that county government is moving forward in a united fashion for the good of everyone. We are a newer board and we could use the assistance that an experienced administrator can bring to the discussions on internal policy.”
He thinks that the current commissioners are here for the long run and committed to their offices. The present commissioners do not see the position as a stepping stone to better-paid jobs elsewhere, public or private. “That’s good,” he muses.
On his relationships with governmental partners, he has found a positive working relationship with Congresswoman Kim Schrier. “The Congresswoman wants to show that this half of her district is meaningful to her. We may disagree on many issues but that does not prevent us from working on shared priorities. For instance, we went back to Washington, DC and we needed her to co-sponsor Dan Newhouse’s Integrated Plan. She was all in, in fact, that was the first piece of legislation that she signed onto.”
He feels that Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz’ 20-year forest plan was a landmark statement for Kittitas County. “I see her advocacy for forest health as critical to us, and it is something that we are going to push forward. It’s a big win for forest health, tourism, commerce and all of that is important to us here in Kittitas County. It works on the west side too, they get clean air with reduced fires, and a great place to recreate and we get jobs and the promise that our forests will be managed with an eye to fire prevention, fish passage, clean water, and spawning grounds.”
“We’re reducing risk to our homeowners, and some may see their insurance rates go down.”
“I believe the more we work with partners like the Yakama Nation, the better off we will be in the future. They are critical partners, not adversaries. I was amazed at seeing the first salmon come back to Lake Cle Elum, and it was a cultural touchstone for them, and I was just glad to be a part of that. It really changed the entire tribe’s future. The differences in the past, where we did not communicate, are changing. In a way, that is business development at its essence, and if we are getting out there and being involved with potential partners, that is how we shape our future.”
On relationships with the firing range, another critical component of Kittitas County’s landmass: “They have been good partners to work with. As a matter of fact, the land that was acquired in the early ’90s belonged to my grandfather. We used to go out agate hunting, hunting, just having fun. I have met with the civilian liaison to the commandant of the Yakima Firing Center, and they realize that the Firing Center has a broad recreational potential that many people don’t realize. They have been receptive to the Wymer Dam proposals and seem to be willing to work with us on any development of that resource. Once you start talking, opportunities start to open up, mutual needs become apparent, and that is what I strive for as a County Commissioner.