Can we talk? King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson connects with residents with face-to-face meetings

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson personifies the politician elected "by the people, for the people."

Consider the evidence.

During his 2003 campaign, Ferguson, by his estimates, rang 22,000 doorbells throughout Northeast Seattle. He met more of his constituents during his five town meetings, nine volunteer projects, 21 neighborhood tours, 45 community meetings and 65 half-hour coffee talks - all within his first year as an elected official.

Ferguson requires his staff of three legislative aides and one intern to knock on 1,000 doors each year, answering questions about county government and distributing handouts for residents to fill out and mail back with any concerns they may have. The Green Lake resident set a goal for himself of knocking on 2,000 doors a year.

So important was this outreach that Ferguson wooed his wife, Colleen, during these doorbelling "dates," he joked.

Over the course of several months, Ferguson and his staff responded individually to the more than 2,000 surveys they received from their mailing of 30,000. Possibly to the chagrin of his staff, Ferguson continues to pass surveys out, as they've responded to another 1,000 more since.

He also sends out a quarterly e-mail newsletter to more than 2,000 subscribers.

In his office, Ferguson has a map of his district on which little dots are scattered across the paper landscape. He sticks different color pins on the locations where he and his staff have performed community service, attended meetings and walked the neighborhoods.

Being accessible to his constituents is important to Ferguson because "people are really hungry for a connectiveness with their elected officials," he explained quickly but thoughtfully.

To provide more opportunities for people to meet with him, Ferguson has set aside Fridays and a half-day on Tuesdays for the one-on-one coffee talks and other "district work."

Apparently, these encounters between elected officials and their constituents are so rare that one person scheduled a coffee talk with Ferguson just to see if he'd show up, legislative aide Kirstin Haugen said.

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, of the 46th District, recently instituted these scheduled coffee talks for himself. Jacobsen had worked with Ferguson many years ago when Ferguson was the University of Washington's student-body president in the late '80s and met him again when Ferguson knocked on his door three separate times during Ferguson's campaign.

No quick decisions

A former practicing attorney, Ferguson researches issues thoroughly before voting on them, seeking feedback from residents and consulting with family and friends who aren't politically involved.

"A lot of officials are more instinctive [in making decisions]," Ferguson said. "I can't imagine ever being that way. The biggest mistake a politician can make is going back on a promise.

"I drive my staff crazy [with my decision-making], to be honest," he said, with a boyish grin.

Ferguson "is much more curious than other council members at times," said longtime friend and lead legislative aide Christy Gullion. "It forces him to want to know both sides of an issue."

Gullion, who has worked with other legislators, said Ferguson's decision-making can take longer than she'd like. "I've asked him to make a quick decision in five minutes, and he doesn't. He needs to talk to others to get input, which is actually a good thing," she said.

In fact, Ferguson said he was the last to vote on the controversial Critical Areas Ordinance, which limits what rural landowners could do with their property. He wanted to hear the lengthy public testimony on the issue, but when that wasn't possible, he spoke with those who would be directly affected.

"No matter how well you know an issue, you don't know it [completely] until you hear the other side," Ferguson said.

"He wants to be the person who pulls people together in a calm environment to come up with a solution," Haugen said. The end result is that Ferguson's "ultimately proud of his decisions."

Facing challenges

Ferguson's analytical approach to forming policy not only comes from his legal training but his experience as a chess champion.

The former child chess prodigy gained confidence playing against adults, including the former Hungarian grand master, whom he challenged in an international tournament at age 18.

The 10-hour, 100-move match ended in a draw, but Ferguson said he went away with the mettle to oppose and defeat 20-year incumbent and county council chairperson Cynthia Sullivan for the District 2 position in 2003.

Ferguson, who turns 40 next month, doesn't see himself serving on the county council for as long as his predecessor, he said, because it would be difficult to bring the same energy he has now toward the job. Instead, he'd like to be a high school teacher someday.

But for now, he's still growing in the job: "I'm still learning, growing as a representative," he said.

And besides, being a county council member is a "great job. I can't imagine a better job," he said. "What's not to like about it?"

Next week in the Herald-Outlook, Ferguson will look ahead to what this year holds for the Metropolitan King County Council and his Northeast Seattle district.

Vera M. Chan-Pool, editor of the North Seattle Herald-Outlook, can be reached at 461-1346 or needitor@

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