Ahead of the curve
Long before it was cool to be green, King County, Wash., Executive Ron Sims was interested in environmental issues. In fact, in 1988, as a county councilmember, Sims sponsored legislation to fund an Office of Global Warming. The idea was before its time and the measure did not pass, but Sims did not stop working to mitigate global warming and develop programs to help people adapt to the changing climate. “We’re going to have global warming, and people are going to have to live with it,” Sims says.
So, he makes it his job to determine how people can live with it more easily. Last year, Sims commissioned scientists at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group to project the condition of King County in 2050, the results of which were “very unsettling,” he says. Predictions included warmer, wetter winters with flooding caused by melting snow runoff from the mountains. Immediately, Sims had the local levy system tested and realized it would not withstand the projected levels of rain and flooding.
To prepare the area for the future, Sims proposed abolishing all current flood districts and creating one King County Flood District to rebuild all levies “to a 2050 standard,” he says. The combined district would be financed by increased sales taxes, and when it came to a vote, the measure passed with flying colors. “I was shocked,” Sims says of the bill’s passage.
But, for those who work with Sims, the outcome is just one testament to his unique leadership style. “So much of leadership is creating a better future,” says Jim Lopez, Sims’ deputy chief of staff. “Ron’s leadership style takes us into the future. He takes us there, makes us imagine what it will be, and then designs plans to get us there. Such vision combined with action is a very important combination.”
For his leadership in finding solutions to environmental, health and transportation problems to create a better home for residents, King County Executive Ron Sims is American City & County’s 2008 County Leader of the Year.
Building a greener future
In addition to reconstructing the county’s levy system to adapt to a changing climate, Sims also works to lessen potential environmental damage. With representatives of 12 other counties, Sims helped launch the Cool Counties Climate Stabilization Initiative last year. The program seeks to marshal the resources of counties across the nation to address the challenges climate change poses. Each participating county pledges to reduce its contributions to climate change through internal operational improvements, demonstrate regional leadership to achieve climate stabilization, help its community become climate resilient and urge the federal government to support the group’s efforts. Under Sims’ leadership, King County has committed to reduce its emissions rate by 80 percent by 2050.
Based on the county’s experience in developing and implementing its own climate action plan, in 2007, Sims co-authored a guidebook for local, regional and state governments on how to prepare for climate change. The book, “Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional and State Governments,” is available for free at the county Web site (www.kingcounty.gov/exec/globalwarming) and now is being used by hundreds of governments around the world. “People accept the fact that we will have global warming, and for the most part, they are accepting our vision of how to deal with it,” Sims says.
Improving community health
Closely related to Sims’ environmental interests are his concerns about residents’ health. An estimated 16,000 children in King County have no health insurance, according to a 2004 survey. For Sims, that figure is unacceptable: He wants all children in King County to have access to health and dental insurance coverage and preventive services.
In 2006, Sims convened the Children’s Health Access Task Force (CHATF) of experts to advise King County on creating a county-based children’s health program. When the CHATF recommended the creation of King County’s Children’s Health Initiative (CHI), a local approach to improving health for low-income children, Sims started finding money for the cause.
By mid-2007, Sims had led the community in raising $6 million in public/private funding to provide health and dental insurance coverage for all county children. Under his leadership, Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative committed its largest community grant ever, $1 million per year for three years, to further the CHI goals. That spurred Seattle-based Washington Dental Service to contribute another $1 million, and then 18 more organizations contributed a total of $1 million, matching a $3 million commitment from the King County Council. “It was all because Ron was out there talking to people, explaining the importance of this program,” says Rachel Quinn, health policy liaison for King County.
With $6 million in funding commitments for three years, the CHI has begun driving down the numbers of uninsured children in King County. Program employees are locating and enrolling children in public health insurance programs, spreading messages in many languages about the value of early prevention and insurance, linking families and children to regular sources of medical and dental care, and encouraging integrated services within clinics. Since early 2007, more than 2,500 children have received health coverage, and more than 70 percent of those have been to a doctor. In addition, more than 6,300 low-income parents have learned about insurance and preventive medical and dental care. “It was all because of Ron going out and talking to leaders in the community,” Quinn says. “He just made it happen. We started doing outreach in July 2007, and since then, we’ve outpaced our projections of enrolling children and getting them seen by a physician.” The CHI also has spurred the state government to reach farther politically than it has in the past, by setting policy goals for statewide coverage of children by 2010.
In another initiative, Sims created the Puget Sound Health Alliance (PSHA), a non-profit organization comprised of health professionals, businesses and governments, to ensure that all residents are receiving the proper standard of health care. The group spent three years studying and defining treatment and care standards for a number of medical conditions, creating the first regional comparison report of its kind in the United States. The group collected data from employers and health care providers and used nationally approved measures to determine whether medical procedures are treating diseases as research says they should. “It took three years to get the report done, and a lot of people were getting antsy because they just want their costs to go down,” Quinn says. “But Ron kept everyone on board, focused on the goal.”
Last year, PSHA piloted a community-wide reporting program that applied the standards to rank doctors across five counties. The PSHA now reports in detail on every practice with six or more doctors, and the information is available to employers, insurers and consumers. “It helps encourage providers to implement their own improvements, and it helps consumers to see who’s really treating a particular disease most successfully,” Quinn says.
“The PSHA was created with the idea that if [we] put everyone in the same room, we could come together on strategies to improve health,” Sims adds. “And now, it’s fundamentally changing health care.”
King County’s residents heavily rely on automobiles, and increasing air pollution from those vehicles can affect residents’ health, environment and quality of life, Sims says. In addition, a growing population and aging infrastructure demand new ideas. “Rather than building new freeways, Ron started looking at new solutions,” says Carolyn Duncan, Sims’ communications director. “That’s his signature.”
In early 2007, King County joined the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Puget Sound Regional Council to secure a $127 million Urban Partnership Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The group’s winning transportation strategy centers on Sims’ suggestion of variable tolling, a market-driven approach to reducing congestion (tolls are higher during peak travel hours and lower when fewer vehicles are on the road). With the funds from the tolls, the state will help pay to replace a vulnerable, 40-year-old bridge across Lake Washington that connects Seattle and its growing suburban communities. The plan also specifies adding 45 buses to the suburban corridor, providing up to 1 million new bus passenger trips each year.
Early in 2007, Sims led the rollout of King County’s Transit Now initiative to expand Metro Transit service, which was approved by voters in the November 2006 general election. Funded by a one-tenth cent sales tax, the measure will help Metro expand service by 15 to 20 percent over the next 10 years. Longer-range improvements will include creating bus rapid transit service in five busy corridors, more bus service on high-usage routes and in growing residential areas, and improvements to the transportation system’s Rideshare and paratransit options. To support the increased service, the county is adding new buses to its fleet and replacing aging buses. Many of the new buses are hybrid diesel-electric coaches, which fit into the Regional Green Fleet Initiative that Sims organized with other neighboring governments in 2007.
With his transportation plans, Sims “has integrated pollution control with livable communities, which creates healthier people, which helps on health care reform,” Duncan says. “It really all fits together, and he has this integrated approach: All these initiatives used to operate in silos, but now we have cross-discipline teams working on solutions with a holistic approach.”
That holistic, big-picture approach is the genius of Sims’ leadership style. But, while the ideas may start with Sims, he is quick to share the credit for what has been accomplished on his watch. “I’m most proud of my innovative, talented staff,” he says. “I believe you have to manage incompetence, but you can just enjoy intelligence that is calibrated enough to succeed.”
— Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based freelance writer.