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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

$6,000 Flight To BC? Outgoing Lands Commissioner Defends Use Of Air Charters

The Washington State Patrol owns a small fleet of planes that state agencies and officials can charter. On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 8, two Washington state troopers piloted a twin engine King Air from Olympia to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The King Air can carry seven passengers. But on that day there were just two on board: Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and his communications director, Sandra Kaiser. Goldmark oversees the Department of Natural Resources and it’s more than 5 million acres of state lands.

The flight took about an hour. Over the next day-and-a-half the lands commissioner met with the U.S. Consul General, spoke at a firefighters breakfast and talked to graduate students in forestry. The next afternoon, the State Patrol plane returned to Vancouver to take the two back to Olympia.

The State Patrol later billed the Department of Natural Resources $6068.32 for that round trip. It’s just one of dozens of chartered flights the outgoing Democrat has taken during his second term in office.

By comparison, a commercial flight from Seattle to Vancouver costs about $1,000 for two passengers -- less if you book in advance.

Money vs. time

Goldmark defended taking the charter flight to Vancouver because of his tight schedule and unreliable traffic getting to Seattle-Tacoma International airport from Olympia.

“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.

Credit Jessica Randklev / The News Tribune
The News Tribune

The trip to Vancouver, B.C. is the most expensive of more than 40 trips Commissioner Goldmark has taken aboard State Patrol aircraft during his second term, costing more than $70,000. The average cost per trip is about $2,000.

Republican state Rep. Joel Kretz, a northeast Washington rancher who’s been a critic of the DNR’s firefighting efforts, said it’s “a lot of money.”

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

While former Republican Commissioner of Public Lands Brian Boyle said Goldmark is a “pretty scrupulous guy,” he said he wouldn’t have chartered the flight to Vancouver.

“The idea that the State Patrol was going to do two roundtrips to get me there, I wouldn’t allow that,” he said.

But Goldmark makes no apologies for using state planes to fly him out of Olympia to save time -- even on short hops around Puget Sound.

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

Goldmark also noted that until 2009 his agency had its own King Air plane at a cost of about $500,000 a year. The DNR said that included operating the plane and paying two pilots.

The legislature forced the sale of the King Air during the Great Recession, It was a move former commissioner Brian Boyle called a mistake and Goldmark opposed. But now Goldmark said it’s saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We’ve tightened the belt there, we sold the aircraft and we’ve been using the King Air and the remainder of the State Patrol aircrafts very judiciously,” Goldmark said.

‘A very important uptick in my need for travel'

The only elected official to fly more is Governor Jay Inslee. He logged over 120 flights during the same time period. But the State Patrol doesn’t invoice the governor’s office for flights.

Records show the only other statewide elected official to charter a State Patrol plane was Secretary of State Kim Wyman. She flew twice in the spring of 2013 as part of a college civics tour.

As for Goldmark, records reveal that his use of chartered planes increased dramatically from just two trips in 2013 to 17 trips in 2015. Goldmark said that’s in part because of back-to-back record fire seasons.

“So that’s been a very important uptick in my need for travel,” he said.

For instance, in January of 2015 Goldmark and four other DNR staffers flew to the north central Washington town of Brewster for a community meeting on the upcoming fire season. Our analysis shows about half of Goldmark’s chartered flights have been to rural eastern Washington communities not served by commercial air carriers.

In addition to fire-related trips, Goldmark flew to Prosser, Washington, four times in 2016 where he was negotiating a land transfer. On some trips he packed in several stops.

But he’s also flown in State Patrol aircraft to places like Spokane, Pullman and Walla Walla that are served by Alaska or Horizon. Goldmark said he flies commercially when convenient. He also sometimes flies himself -- he’s a licensed pilot with his own plane.

Who flies in state planes?

A trip aboard a chartered state plane usually begins at the Olympia Airport. In the State Patrol’s gleaming hangar there are two King Airs plus a single engine Cessna 182 that’s also used to transport state officials.  

Besides the governor and the Department of Natural Resources, the other top users of the planes are the State Patrol itself, the Department of Corrections, and the Washington State Department of Transportation. The planes are available on a first come, first serve basis.

Lt. Jim Nobach said a State Patrol flight can cut a two or three day business trip down to one.

“We mainly leave it up to the state agencies to figure out what makes the best business sense for them, whether they fly commercial or they fly us,” he said.

A State Patrol analysis shows it takes at least four passengers on board a King Air before the per-person cost beats the cost of driving. That’s for a hypothetical trip from Olympia to Spokane. Records show nearly 80 percent of the time Goldmark was the sole passenger or flew with just one other person, most often his communications director.

Even so, nearly half the time they took the larger, more expensive King Air rather than the smaller Cessna. The King Air is required for safety in certain weather conditions, especially over the Cascades.

Kretz said he’s not going to second guess Goldmark’s flying habits. But he added the cost and the optics matter -- especially since Goldmark has been warning that his agency doesn’t have enough money to combat the threat of wildfires.

“You gotta make sure that agency looks pretty tight and clean and frugal to have much sympathy in the legislature,” Kretz said.

Goldmark leaves office in January. His successor is Democrat Hilary Franz who did not respond to our requests for comment.

This story was reported in collaboration with The News Tribune of Tacoma

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."