A Whatcom County Council member MIA 84% of the time
March 3, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
What if I hired a lawyer on retainer for long civil litigation, met them on the first appointment, paid the $10,000 retainer, then find to my dismay that at 20% of the sessions already paid for, they stand me up? And if in another 64% of those sessions, they just phone it in, a disembodied voice emanating from a speakerphone, so that the lawyer is actually visible to me in only 16% of the pre-paid meetings?
During those phone-in appointments, I have no way of knowing even where the lawyer is, nor whether I get their undivided attention during that costly hour. Are they multitasking with other stuff? Driving? Waiting for their kid at the school bus? Sipping mai tais in the Florida Keys?
Now consider our Whatcom County Council. No, they are not volunteers (though most of the public assumes they are). Unlike your Pappy’s Council, today’s members are handsomely paid.
The annual compensation for each of the seven council members is approximately $77,411. I have estimated the full-days-equivalent of visible work performed by the median member: 44 days, only 22% of the 200 days of full-time employment. (The scatter about this median is large, perhaps, over a range from as short as 20 days, up to as long as 100 days. Forty-four days is only an estimated median.) So the median compensation per full-day-equivalent workday is $1,759.34, implying $220/hour.
That’s several times the median hourly compensation in our county. Not a bad gig, if you can get it.
But at least council members are under some oversight, so they will continually strive to deliver good work product to the county’s residents, right?
Again, no. Sorry.
Who oversees on a month-to-month basis the work performance of these seven folks lucky enough to be pulling down $220/hour? Nobody.
Who gives council members their Annual Performance Appraisal? Nobody.
Who works with them to improve their performance? Nobody.
Council members are completely unaccountable within their organization. Yes, every four years the voters can signal thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but frankly, few voters follow the council at all, let alone closely. Many residents don’t even know there is a county council!
So each member of council is effectively on an honor system. Either they have the conscience and internal sense of duty to deliver work product commensurate with their pay, or they don’t. Looking in from outside, we see most, but not all, council members appear to be measuring up under an honor system.
If you don’t think the honor system can fail, I have two words for you: George Santos.
Consider the simplest metrics of council-member work product, which is attending and fully participating in their respective required meetings. I gathered data on this for those meetings from April 12, 2022 through Jan. 31, 2023. Long after COVID lockdowns.
I looked at two performance metrics from data for each meeting in the study:
- Was the member marked “absent” or “present”?
- If “present”, was the member visible (either on Zoom video, or in-person in chambers), or was the member hidden from sight, just phoning it in?
Relative to each council member’s required meetings in the set studied, I tally the percentages. These reveal differences between different members. They reveal which members of council are delivering more, and which are delivering less.
Tyler Byrd has the highest rate of absence (19%), Ben Elenbaas close behind.
But a greater problem than absences — which are “no worse than” 19% — is the persistent pattern of one council member to be marked “present” but in fact hidden from view. Invisible.
When they’re invisible, we have no way of seeing whether they are fully attentive to the meeting on hand, or multi-tasking with other stuff in their life. Or even, where they are! Whatcom County? Washington? Another state? Another country? Unknown.
Here is the percentage of required meetings in our sample in which each member was both present and visible: either in-person in chambers, or on Zoom with the video on.
We see huge contrast between council members. Todd Donovan, Carol Frazey, Kaylee Galloway, Kathy Kershner and Barry Buchanan get passing grades. Then, freefall: Elenbaas 55%, and Byrd an eye-popping 16%.
So at 84% of his required meetings, Byrd was either marked absent, or marked “present” but on a phone line without video, hidden from sight.
Period: April 12, 2022 through Jan. 31, 2023.
Sample: All meetings convened for all seven members (Council; Council Special; Council Committee of the Whole; Executive Session; Council Water Work Session; Council as the Health Board). Plus: Criminal Justice and Public Safety (both 2022 and 2023), Finance and Administrative Services (2022 only), and Planning and Development (2023 only).
De-biasing: I normalized each member’s “Absent” and “Present and Visible” tallies by the total number of meetings in the sample pertaining to that member.
Abe Jacobson is a mostly-retired physicist who has followed Whatcom County Council since 2006.