Sunday, December 18, 2016

Chartered flights a favorite for outgoing Lands Commissioner Goldmark. And they can be expensive

One of the Washington State Patrol’s King Air twin-engine aircraft is seen in the agency’s Olympia hangar during its maintenance service Nov. 3. Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark uses the plane for business, much more in the past two years than he did in the previous two.

Outgoing Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. Hilary Franz will take his place in January.  

This story was reported in collaboration with Austin Jenkins of public radio’s Northwest News Network.

On June 8, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark flew to Vancouver, B.C., for a two-day mid-week work trip.

On the first day, he met with a U.S. consul general about the health of Puget Sound. The next, he spoke to local fire departments, media, graduate students and professors about wildfires and forest health before boarding a plane to fly back to the state.

The cost for the round trip flight? $6,068.

That’s because Goldmark — and frequent fellow traveler Sandra Kaiser, the top Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman — took a favorite mode of travel: a chartered Washington State Patrol airplane from Olympia.

This time, the pair flew one of the patrol’s two-propeller planes known as a King Air. Piloted by troopers, the seven-seat plane took two trips to Canada. One to drop off Goldmark and Kaiser and another to pick them up.

It was the most expensive of at least 42 trips on chartered flights Goldmark has taken since 2013, at an average cost of about $2,000. Goldmark’s flying habit is unique among elected state agency chiefs, and also has increased as of late. The Democrat from Okanogan has more than tripled his use of chartered flights to travel out of Olympia during the last two years of his four-year term.

Goldmark, who didn’t seek a third term this fall, took 32 trips from the start of 2015 through September 2016.

The number of flights didn’t appear excessive to one former lands commissioner and a high level staffer for another. But a state lawmaker who has been a frequent critic of the agency frowned at the cost.

“Yeah, that’s a lot of money,” said state Rep. Joel Kretz, a Republican from Wauconda, when asked about Goldmark’s $6,000 trip to B.C.

Kretz serves on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and is a rancher who has worked extensively on wildfire issues with DNR, which leads the state’s firefighting efforts.

“I’m sitting here thinking of how many fire hoses could we buy for that, you know?” he said.

Goldmark said he used the patrol airplane instead of a cheaper mode of travel because he had a tight schedule that week. He said he didn’t want to burn time stuck in traffic driving from Olympia to Sea-Tac Airport to catch a commercial flight, which could run around $900-$1,000 roundtrip for two passengers if booked just days before the trip.

Driving to Canada — a four-hour trip each way without traffic — would have cost about $216 in state mileage reimbursement round trip.

On the morning Goldmark left for Vancouver, the commissioner had several meetings and a public firefighting fitness test with Gov. Jay Inslee, plus media interviews, Kaiser said.

“I thought it was appropriate to use those resources, those state resources, to lessen the amount of time that I would be engaged in transit,” Goldmark said.

Standing in the Washington State Patrol’s operation’s hangar at the Olympia Airport Nov. 3 and near one of the agency’s King Air twin engine aircraft, Lt. Jim Nobach outlines the various state agencies that utilize WSP’s aircraft for transport services.

As for the recent uptick? That, he explained, was caused by record wildfire seasons in 2014 and 2015. Many of his chartered flights in the last two years were to visit rural places affected by wildfires and to work on securing money from the Legislature for early fire suppression, he said.

In January 2015, for example, Goldmark was joined by four senior staffers on a King Air flight to the north central Washington town of Brewster for a community meeting to discuss planning for that year’s fire season. Kretz, other state lawmakers and local officials were there, too.

Goldmark said he’s brought awareness to the need for preemptive wildfire action and “made some progress with the state Legislature around funding” during the time his flying has ramped up.

Still, Goldmark sometimes charters planes to locations easily reachable by commercial airlines, Amtrak or car. Some include short hops, like Olympia to Boeing Field in Seattle, to Everett or Skagit County. Some are longer flights to places in Eastern Washington such as Pullman, Spokane and Walla Walla.

The commissioner, who is a licensed pilot and owns a Cessna airplane that he’s also flown on state-reimbursed business trips, defends his use of chartered planes in such situations instead of driving or catching a train.

“I don’t think the people of the state of Washington want me stranded on I-5 as opposed to pursuing their good work,” Goldmark said.

How he flies

The State Patrol’s small fleet of airplanes is available to all state agencies.

But most rarely, if ever, use them. Besides the patrol itself, the governor’s office and DNR use the planes for travel the most. Department of Corrections also uses the planes for transporting prisoners, mostly across state lines.

Inslee used the planes more than 120 times from January 2013 through September of this year, though he isn’t billed by the patrol. Secretary of State Kim Wyman is the only other elected agency executive to show up in WSP flight records in that time frame. Wyman flew twice, the records say.

Customers pick which plane to use based on how many passengers will be flying and the availability of the planes. Safety is a factor, too: The smaller and cheaper single-propeller Cessna planes can’t always handle poor weather crossing the Cascades, Lt. Jim Nobach said. A King Air is more fit for bad-weather trips.

Some choose to charter patrol planes to save time and hotel costs, he added.

“We might be able to turn a two or three-day trip for our folks into a one-day trip with the aircraft to attend multiple meetings,” Nobach said.

Close to 80 percent of Goldmark’s trips have been solo or with one other passenger. Flight records show almost half of trips that Goldmark flew alone or with one guest were in a King Air, versus a smaller, cheaper Cessna.

Inslee used the King Air more often, but also tends to fly with bigger groups. The governor has taken less than one-third of his flights by himself or with one other passenger since 2013. He’s usually accompanied by at least one member of his security detail, too.

Goldmark said he often brings along Kaiser, who was hired in spring 2014, to handle logistics on trips, give advice and help during discussions. More staffers aren’t always necessary, and bringing them would be a waste of state time, he said.

“I have been a very frugal manager of scarce state resources,” Goldmark said.

Standing in the Washington State Patrol’s King Air twin-engine aircraft, out of service for maintenance, Lt. Jim Nobach outlines the various state agencies that utilize WSP’s planes for transport services.

DNR prefers the sky

In addition to Goldmark’s trips, DNR has used the State Patrol planes to travel for 12 other trips since 2013. That’s in keeping with a history in which the agency has used air travel to help the commissioner and staff oversee the agency’s 5.6 million acres of public land — much of it rural.

The agency had its own King Air until 2009, when the Legislature forced DNR to sell it during the Great Recession to save money.

Goldmark fought to keep the plane at the time, telling then-Gov. Chris Gregoire it was needed for wildfire and other emergency responses — such as once transporting mechanics to a fire to fix a firefighting helicopter.

The plane also saved Goldmark and his staff “hundreds of hours of staff time otherwise spent ‘on the road’ for unavoidable travel,” he wrote to Gregoire, requesting a veto.

Historically the plane was used for wildfires and other emergencies only 25 percent of the time, Goldmark wrote. He promised to make wildfire and emergency use half of the plane’s activity.

Gregoire wasn’t persuaded, axing the plane and saying she drove for travel whenever possible, according to a report in The Olympian.

In total, operating the DNR plane — including pilot salaries — had cost an average of more than $500,000 a year, Goldmark estimated in an interview.

Brian Boyle, the lands commissioner from 1981 to 1993, called Goldmark a “pretty scrupulous guy” and backed up Goldmark’s argument that time saved can be worth the higher cost of flying. He called it a mistake to sell DNR’s King Air.

“Washington is not a huge state, but if you drive it all the time, especially in the traffic, you find now you waste an awful lot of time trying to get your job done,” he said.

A cabin in one of the Washington State Patrol’s King Air twin engine aircraft is gutted during a maintenance project Nov. 3

Todd Myers, a former spokesman for Goldmark’s Republican predecessor, Doug Sutherland, said his boss hopped flights around the state to catch public meetings often, particularly where commercial flights don’t go.

“Slightly more than one a month doesn’t sound like it’s obnoxious,” he said of Goldmark’s travel.

Even Kretz, who noted he couldn’t judge all of the commissioner’s trips unless he saw their justification, said he would consider flying to meetings if they were high priority and he had a tight schedule.

Still, Boyle, a Republican, said scrutiny of cost is important. He was skeptical of Goldmark using the WSP plane for the Vancouver, B.C. trip, for example. On each trip, DNR’s bill included paying for the pilots and sometimes for landing fees.

“You really need to look at what it’s going to cost you to do it,” Boyle said. “The idea the State Patrol was going to do two roundtrips to get me there — I wouldn’t allow that.”

Kretz also noted the optics of Goldmark chartering planes in some situations. Goldmark’s trip to Vancouver, B.C., “would be like me driving to Northport and showing up in a Mercedes or something,” he said.

Appearances can be important when asking the Legislature for a bigger wildfire budget, too, as Goldmark has often done, Kretz said.

“You’ve got to make sure that agency looks pretty tight and clean and frugal to have much sympathy in the Legislature,” Kretz said.

Goldmark will soon hand the reins at DNR to Democrat Hilary Franz, who beat Republican Steve McLaughlin in the November election. Franz did not respond to requests for comment on how she might use the plane. Her term starts in January.

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