Sen. John Braun Commentary: To Restore Public Trust, Start Reestablishing Public Safety


I don’t know anyone who would choose to live next to a big, noisy international airport, or have sexually violent predators for neighbors. 

Through no fault of their own, people in the Tenino and Maytown areas of southeast Thurston County are facing both of those scenarios. They are rightfully upset.

The concern posed by the sex-predator housing is both more recent and more serious. Thanks to Thurston County government, which found a wrench to throw into the works, the “residents” may no longer be arriving from McNeil Island on Feb. 1, as had been expected. 

But let’s remember how state government, in the form of the Department of Social and Health Services, managed to keep people in the community from getting wind of the details of this scheme until Jan. 11. No one should count DSHS out of this fight.

A new “major commercial” airport, to use the official label, is a more distant possibility. It wouldn’t have to be completed and functional until 2040. Also, there are multiple sites on the short list, not just Thurston County. 

There are other differences between the two situations, but the bottom line is the same: community residents are feeling blindsided. 

The idea of a “halfway house” is nothing new for people transitioning from full custody back to being in the community. I can understand why our state has a law that basically pushes released sex offenders back to the counties where they came from. Otherwise, Pierce County would likely end up being home to more than its share of those released from McNeil Island. That isn’t fair. 

Still, there is absolutely no excuse for the lack of transparency on government’s part, especially from the Department of Social and Health Services and Department of Corrections.

As for a new airport – anyone who follows the news is likely aware of the overcrowding at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Somehow, some way, our state does need to create more airport capacity, but that effort has gotten off to a very poor start. There are much better options, including building out our existing airport infrastructure. Most important, the next steps need to be more transparent with much more public engagement. People have to be able to trust their government, if we ever hope to find a solution that everyone can support.

It would be a mistake, for at least two reasons, to view the community’s anger about either of these situations as just another example of NIMBYism — a “Not In My Back Yard!” reaction.

First, what’s happening in rural Thurston County could happen most anywhere in our state. The “fair share” law about sex-predator housing means a majority of Washington’s 39 counties could find themselves in the same boat, all wondering what DSHS may be plotting in the shadows.

Second, the mistrust of government in general runs much deeper than it did a few years ago. It’s more than a lack of transparency – people are just tired of the state trying to have it both ways, especially when it comes to public safety and personal accountability. They’ve had it with a government that, among other things, dictates to law-abiding citizens while tolerating lawless behavior. 

I don’t know where the sex-predator and airport situations are going to end up. Those of us who represent southeast Thurston County in the Legislature are doing what we can on both fronts. Knowing how slowly the permitting process can move, the fact that the sex-predator housing owner has been directed by Thurston County to seek new permits for drinking water and septic tanks would seem to buy some valuable time. That opens the door for legislative consideration of Senate Bill 5544, to add a public-notice process that is missing from the law about sex-predator transitional housing.

Also, now that the COVID restrictions in place during the past two legislative sessions are finally gone, people from the area can bring their fight directly to the Capitol. There was a no-airport protest Tuesday on the steps of the Legislative Building. Thursday brought a protest against the sex-predator housing. That’s encouraging.

In the meantime, the Legislature, as the branch of government closest to the people, needs to start doing what it can to restore the public’s trust in government. Not just in the Tenino and Maytown areas, but across Washington.

A good place to start is public safety, which is one of three Senate Republican priorities for 2023. In the Senate, that would mean passing Senate Bill 5352. It would again allow law-enforcement officers to rely on their training when deciding to engage in a vehicle pursuit. A similar bill was blocked by a minority of Democratic senators during the final hours of 2022’s legislative session. 

SB 5361 would provide cities and counties with more funding to hire more officers. Maybe Thurston County and other counties could then put more deputies on the road. I’m co-sponsoring this bill, which advanced a step Thursday after receiving policy-committee approval.

SB 5049, another measure I’m supporting, would increase the penalty for firearm theft. The idea is to deter the thefts that put stolen guns in the hands of violent criminals. Because this would target behavior, not inanimate objects, it’s a better path than the wrong-headed efforts to drive firearm manufacturers and dealers out of Washington, and prohibit some firearms from being sold based primarily on their appearance. 

I also don’t know anyone who would choose to live in a state where the laws lean more toward criminals and against law-abiding people and crime victims. Democrats have said they want to reduce crime in our state. We’ll know whether they can be trusted by the choices they make in the coming weeks.


Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.