October 24, 2019
There is a branch of our government that is independent of the three branches we study in school. This branch usually operates in the shadows overlooked by both the people and the legislature. It makes its own rules with the same force as law. It has the power to levy fines and seize property. No one in this branch is elected and, therefore, is generally unresponsive to public opinion. It is virtually independent to do whatever it pleases, and I have never known it to admit a mistake. This shadow government is made up of the various bureaucratic agencies that are established to manage specific areas of expertise. They include Labor and Industries, Fish and Game, the State Environmental Protection Agency, DSHS, Department of Agriculture,etc. They are supposed to provide expertise in their respective fields and free up the legislature from mundane tasks, so they can concentrate on making laws. They also give the legislature someone to blame when things go wrong.
The recent debacle in Pullman is an example of our shadow government at work. On April 9, 2019, thunderstorms quickly turned the streets into rivers. First responders displayed both bravery and ingenuity and were able to rescue 22 people from the flood. When L&I investigated a whistle blower complaint, it was found that some of the responders were not certified for water rescue, and the city was fined $2,700. A spokesperson for L&I said they had no choice. Their regulations do not allow for corrective actions without fines. But L&I writes its own regulations. If their directors had wanted to waive the fines in this case, they could have. The spokesperson went on to say that all fines went toward EMT training programs. This is simply not true. All money going to the state is put into one pile and is divided up as the legislature sees fit. I have not heard any spokesman from L&I say they did anything out of the ordinary. Despite public outcry, I don’t expect L&;I to offer an apology. They were simply conducting business as usual.
The State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is another inflexible part of shadow government. I built a cabin on the Pend Oreille River a few years ago. The 34 page building permit included several pages required by SEPA. Our building site was on a portion of the river subject to erosion. I wanted to stabilize our waterfront with river rocks. The SEPA representative quoted a study claiming rocks warm up the river. I was surprised and pointed out that the study in question had been discounted by experts. My rebuttal fell on deaf ears, and I was required to spend $9,000 on shore line plants that have been successful in providing food for the local beavers, but have done little to cure my erosion problem. I was also informed that the Pend Oreille River is in a salmon recovery zone even though salmon have never been part of the river’s ecosystem. When I pointed this out, I was told to spend another few thousand dollars to install light penetrating decking on our dock. The salmon recovery area has been extended to include protection for endangered bull trout that were devastated several years ago due to mismanagement by fish and game experts.
I recently discovered that catch limits will be removed for bass and other spiny ray fish in order to protect Puget Sound orcas. It seems that predatory spiny ray fish eat the baby salmon that would otherwise go out to sea and be eaten by the orcas. No one mentioned the closure of salmon and steelhead hatcheries. Another expert within the Fish and Game decided that hatchery fish were a threat to native salmon, so some hatcheries were being closed. It would seem to me that the shortage of food for orcas is in part due to not having hatchery fish to eat.
The shadow government can, and often does, get out of control. Our state representative was “livid” when he heard about the fines, but it is the job of the legislature to provide oversight for these agencies. Legislature provides funding and funding is the hammer to keep them in line.
(Frank Watson is a retired Air Force Colonel and a long time resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a free lance columnist for over 18 years.)