William D. (Bill) Ruckelshaus is being remembered, since his death last week at the age of 87, largely for his unique role in environmental stewardship as head of the Environmental Protection Agency for two presidents. For two other presidents that stewardship included being appointed to help ensure the future of the salmon and the health of the oceans.
Lesser known was his view about the environment in which political and policy decision making occurs. In that environment, he always sought a collaborative approach to resolving disagreements. In fact, he made no secret of his disregard for what he once characterized for me in a 2011 interview as "the era of inflamed partisanship and ideology."
And lesser-known still, his willingness, as CEO of Houston-based Browning Ferris Industries, a major waste-removal firm, to take on the mafia, as he did in expanding his company into New York City. The collaboration he brought to that situation was with authorities whom he helped to clean up the business environment of an industry.
Ruckelshaus, from a prominent Republican family in Indiana where he became a powerful state elected official, was named by President Richard Nixon in 1970 at the age of 38 to be the EPA's first administrator, then was called back by President Ronald Reagan to be the agency's fifth director.
In leading the EPA after its creation, he laid the foundation for the agency by hiring its leaders, defining its mission, deciding on priorities, and selecting an organizational structure. He also oversaw the implementation of the Clean Air Act of 1970.
His name became synonymous with environmental protection, which doesn't mean he always defended the tactics or decisions of those engaged in protecting the environment.
In the 2011 interview for a Harp column that I went back to review last weekend after his death, he acknowledged that "it's important to be careful about what power you give government and government has to be careful about how it exercises that power.
"It's almost a given that abuses will occur," he added. But then he posed the question: "What's preferable, the possibility of abuses that must be reined in, or no rules? In order to provide a framework in which freedom can function, you have to have rules."
As we talked for that column, there was a detectable sense of both disappointment and frustration in Ruckelshaus' voice as he discussed what he termed the "most violent anti-environment rhetoric in recent memory coming from Congress" in attacks on the EPA.
As evidence of frustration, Ruckelshaus said, referring to that 2011 political scene, "recent attacks are particularly mindless because they give no credence to the original bipartisan support for the creation of EPA," which came into being by executive order of Republican President Richard Nixon.
"It was at a time of public outcry that visible air pollution and flammable rivers were not acceptable," Ruckelshaus recalled. "And as EPA was being established, the Congress passed the Clean Air Act in a burst of non-partisan agreement: 73-0 in the Senate and 374-1 in the House." That obviously came about through political collaboration, discussions toward which Ruckelshaus obviously had a part.
It's difficult in this era to even imagine there was a time when such agreement between political parties and both houses of Congress could occur on any issue.
The fact that Congress could, with virtual unanimity, approve what obviously was legislation that assumedly made some members politically uncomfortable would be viewed as "historical fiction," or maybe "Fake History" by some political ideologues today. But it was merely a time when Democracy could function.
With respect to his taking on the mafia during his tenure at Browning-Ferris from 1987 to 1995, Ruckelshaus helped investigators infiltrate a Mafia-dominated carting conspiracy, leading prosecutors to obtain indictments.
Browning-Ferris not only won that skirmish, but it was also well on its way to winning a war. In just three years, the waste-management giant from Houston accomplished what no other company thought possible: It broke organized crime's chokehold on New York City's $1.5 billion commercial trash industry.
Those who have grown tired of the dysfunctional nature of verbal rifle shots, or maybe more accurately shotgun blasts, that have replaced Congressional debate might wish there was something at the national level like the William D. Ruckelshaus Center in Seattle.
I'm sure others share with me the hope that part of his legacy will be the work of the Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort, created to foster collaborative public policy in the state of Washington and Pacific Northwest. It is hosted and administered at WSU by WSU Extension and hosted at UW by the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance
The mission of the center is to act as a neutral resource for collaborative problem-solving in the Northwest, providing expertise to improve "the quality and availability of voluntary collaborative approaches for policy development and multi-party dispute resolution."
For anyone inclined to dismiss the wording of the mission as "policy-wonk," it should be noted that the center has successfully brought together parties to build consensus on a range of issues, perhaps most dramatically the Agriculture and Critical Areas Project.
The landmark three-plus-year effort aimed at preserving the viability of agricultural lands dealt with the issue of how to control farmland runoff without destroying the prosperity of farmers, an agreement that has unfortunately received little visibility.
"The Ruckelshaus Center has 15 years of experience successfully refining and applying his extraordinary vision for how our state and region can resolve complex public policy challenges through collective wisdom, rather than a competition of narrow perspectives," said Advisory Board Chair Bob Drewel.
Drewel, retired head of the Puget Sound Regional Council and former chancellor of WSU Everett who is now Senior Advisor to WSU President Kirk Schulz, predicted: "The Center will continue to build on that legacy, in new issue areas and challenges, working toward a future where Bill's approach is standard practice."
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