When Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden as a special, cabinet-level “director of mobility operations coordination,” she explained the move as a way of freeing up Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe to focus on the day-to-day operations at SDOT while Worden dealt with crisis management. (Worden, whose most recent job was for defense contractor Lockheed Martin, was a runner-up for the SDOT director position, and his $195,000 salary is funded at least partially through SDOT.)
Worden, the mayor said, would “coordinate across all departments” to respond to emergencies that impact transportation; for example, “When a tree comes down and blocks a road, that’s not necessarily a Seattle Department of Transportation issue; it could be a City Light issue because it could take wires with it. It could be a Parks Department issue, because the tree was originally in a park.”
At the time, the city was dealing with the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which many officials thought would result in nightmarish traffic jams. The city opened its joint operations center—essentially, an emergency traffic management center staffed 24 hours a day—to respond to the coming “period of maximum constraint” downtown. When that “carpocalypse” (predictably) failed to occur, Worden was assigned to more, ahem, general duties. (As I reported earlier this year, city staffers were initially instructed to refer to Worden as “the General” or “General Worden,” a directive that was reportedly later rescinded).
But what, exactly, are those duties? Worden has been one of the least visible members of the mayor’s administration, rarely appearing at press events and taking a back seat at major announcements; at the mayor’s recent housing speech, for example, he stood in the back of the room and left immediately after Durkan concluded her remarks.
I asked the mayor’s office for a copy of Worden’s schedule, starting in March of this year—after the fears of Viadoom had mostly subsided.
The first thing that jumps out about the schedule is the large number of the pages in Worden’s schedule that are largely blank—unusual for a mayoral cabinet member.
The second obvious departure from a traditional high-ranking city employee’s schedule is that a huge amount of Worden’s time is unprogrammed “out and about” time. “Out and about,” in fact, makes up the largest category of time in Worden’s schedule other than unprogrammed time represented as blank spaces in the calendar—in the 85 work days represented in his March, April, May, and June calendars, 285 hours—or the equivalent of nearly 36 full eight-hour work days—is earmarked as “out and about.” Twelve more weekdays are blocked out as “DNS [do not schedule]—will attend cabinet or mayoral meetings.”
Here are a few pages from Worden’s schedule (full calendar here). Below them is the schedule for SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe for those same days.
Asked about Worden’s current duties, Durkan spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said he’s focused on “implementing citywide process improvements to better address traffic incidents” like the fish truck spill in 2015, which took place under the previous administration and eventually led to 30 recommendations for improving traffic incident management. “Director Worden manages the Traffic Incident Management and Congestion Management program, which is a cross-department, City-wide coordination effort,” Kellogg said. “This work is happening in coordination with the regional Seattle Area Congestion Management Joint Operations Working Group to implement region-wide process improvements.”
As for all that “out and about time,” Kellogg said: “During that time Mike rides buses, light rail, or the [S]ounder to talk to transit drivers and riders.” (Sounder and light rail are run by Sound Transit, not the city; the buses are run by King County Metro). “Sometimes Mike goes to traffic pinch points or other points of observation to watch traffic, incident responses, traffic clearing, traffic officers, etc. When there is an incident, Director Worden often goes to see response in person, sometimes hitching a ride with a responder. If required, Director Worden corrects response protocols on the spot unless there is a serious unresolved trend which needs to be elevated.”
Referring to the unscheduled stretches in Worden’s calendar, I asked Kellogg whether I was “missing things that are happening that are not explicitly on the schedule,” and for examples. Kellogg responded: “To your question about his day-to-day responsibilities outside of City projects, that would be reflected in the regular working time not taken up by meetings.”
“Each member of cabinet has different responsibilities. Some cabinet members manage large teams of people and huge departments; some do not. We believe it valuable to have a cabinet member like Director Worden who can focus on and elevate the cross-departmental work of departments on incident management and congestion management,” Kellogg said.
7 thoughts on “Where Is Durkan’s $195,000 Cabinet-Level General? “Out and About,” According to His Schedule”
Actually, Erica, he is doing exactly what America has trained him to do. And what Seattle is paying him to do. His job. Which is to react to emergencies with calm and focus and “put them right” and save the maximum number of Seattleite lives and property.
You don’t get ready to do those things until you have read the plans (sometimes even memorized them,) met the folks who will help, understood their capabilities as Departments or Agencies or just as leaders and technicians and know the limits and disposition of their equipment.
Then he must “walk the battlefield” (the streets, roads, bridges, neighborhoods, sewer mains, water mains, the power grids, ad infinitum) over endless hours learning (unless he is Seattle born and bred) where the choke points are, where the fastest routes are, where feeding and watering stations can be established, and playing what if games with himself and his staff to make sure we have plans for contingencies that work, and back ups for those plans, and back-ups to the back-ups.
The only time he should talk to Jenny and spend time on “administrivia” is to make sure that he knows her and the Council’s priorities when the chips are down. Because when the “big one” comes there is NO time to chit chat.
So where is the nearest D-11 Caterpillar to California and Alaska and is it in-commission and available to clear abandoned cars from that intersection to speed up getting West Seattleites to Capital Hill or First Hill level one (or any) trauma centers? And what if…?
It’s a Sun Tzu thing:
“If you know the enemy (the effects of earthquake, volcano, lahar, flood, aircraft accident, civil unrest, or war on our soil) and know yourself (that means your people and resources), you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
Except he’s no spring chicken and seems a safe bet he won’t be here in 3 years. Glad he spent so much time “learning.”. The Mayor has bad ideas on transportation. That’s ok, but it’s less OK that she makes professionals act on them.
Not the first time a Seattle department has chosen a general to put things right, if anyone remembers John Stanford…what is Seattle’s affinity for military types?
John Stanford was an incredible person and leader. And sounds like Worden is as well. Nothing wrong with generals, some are incredibly hard working and just as progressive as most mainstream Seattlites (see Jame Mattis among many others).
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