Tye Menser can bring balance to Thurston commission

In a more perfect world, challenger Tye Menser and incumbent Bud Blake would serve together on the Thurston County Board of Commissioners.

Both are well qualified, intelligent and have their hearts and heads mostly in the right place. We might endorse both if they were not running against each other.

But there is only one position for County Commission on the Nov. 6 ballot, and that seat should go to Menser, 47, a California native and Democrat.

This recommendation was a hard decision for The Olympian‘s Editorial Board and came as a split decision.

Blake, 54, is an Alabama native, a retired Army veteran, a political Independent and a genuinely nice but also smart guy.

He has quietly and earnestly tried to build bridges between social services agencies and others to deal with the twin crises of mental illness and homelessness in our communities.

Though Blake’s reputation is rising among homeless advocates and leaders in Olympia and he may one day bring along his fellow Independents — conservatives Gary Edwards and John Hutchings — Olympia has been crying out for more county leadership on a public health emergency that is more regional than local in nature.

More importantly, Menser has been clearest — for longer — about that need. He may be better suited to build the regional approach to fighting homelessness than Blake.

This is just one reason Menser is endorsed by three mayors and most city council members from Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, all of which lean to the left.

Menser also brings superior knowledge of — and concern for — environmental protection in a time of heavy population growth. He is badly needed on the commission to bring a counter-balance to the conservative- or right-leaning commission over the next four years that, like Blake, sees land-use deregulation as the main way to promote the local economy.

Menser is also bright, articulate and transparent and served on a regional water advisory board that helped him grasp the complexities of that tricky environmental policy arena.

That is not to say Blake has not been a good commissioner. In some ways his personality and love of being in charge of the show make him potentially better suited to serve as a county executive — if we had one with a county charter form of government.

Blake’s successes include work with two former Democratic commissioners to open a new jail after Great Recession-spurred delays.

He was also a player with Democrats to develop — and later open — a triage center where mentally ill people can be assessed and referred for treatment, when appropriate, rather than going straight into jail.

Blake has tried to revamp the public health department from the top into one that is focused on family health. He has talked about moving ahead with a septic-system pollution-testing for Puget Sound in a program that focuses on one inlet at a time — before addressing South County septic system failures.

To his credit, Blake took the lead among commissioners to get the county’s long-brewing plan completed that may create habitat protections for endangered and threatened species.

The plan was sent early in the summer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That plan awaits review, which — if approved — could insulate the county and many property owners from lawsuits or penalties related to destruction of habitat for the Mazama pocket gopher and a dozen other species.

The plan, which costs some $1.8 million a year, is light years better than going to court to fight the feds, which at least one of Blake’s commission colleagues had advocated.

But as we look ahead at a fast-growing county that borders Puget Sound, Menser is the one more likely to protect the environment as our county absorbs a predicted 100,000 new residents over the next few decades.

We trust Menser to hold firm on urban growth boundaries that steer most growth into core areas rather than open up large pockets of land outside the county’s urban growth areas.

If elected, Menser can serve as a better minority voice for moderation if the conservative commission majority goes too far in the direction of deregulation.

Menser also has experience in criminal defense, which is hugely valuable for a county whose general fund budget is given over heavily to the cost of jails, courts, and other criminal justice-related activities.

Looking for ways to get justice while looking for efficiencies makes a lot of sense.

And Menser is proving to be more accurate — or less prone to offering rose-colored assessments — about the county’s budget deficits. Reserves are running well below the targets set by the county budget director, but they have gotten better this year due to a roaring economy and heavier than expected sales tax revenues.

Every election offers tough choices, and this is the hardest for Thurston County voters. We hope that win or lose both candidates stay involved in local issues.

But a vote for Tye Menser is one that can bring a little more balance to county government in the long run.