Unincorporated area councils concerned about county’s new proposal

A proposal tucked into King County's 90-page budget calls for the county to examine whether its six Unincorporated Area Councils (UACs) should be combined into one. And while the ink is barely dry on the 2011 spending plan, the proviso is already raising concerns in the unincorporated swaths of the county, where the UACs act as intermediaries between rural residents and a county government headquartered in Seattle.

The proviso in the budget, which was passed last month, calls for the county to develop a plan to consolidate its six UACs into one unincorporated area commission. Council spokesman Al Sanders said $100,000 was set aside in the budget to implement the results of this study, which should be completed by April of next year. The money may or may not be used, depending on how the council decides to move forward.

“They are looking at if the UACs can be run more efficiently and streamlined. … The goal is to have the information available for the 2012 budget deliberations,” Sanders said.

But Lauren Smith, the county's unincorporated area relations manager, said representatives from many of the councils, including the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC), are worried about what this proposal may mean for them and have already expressed fears that a combined council wouldn't meet their needs.

“They feel that they have very specific issues in their communities. … There are some things they share but there really are many differences. The power of the UACs lies in that,” Smith said.

Though Smith said it’s still unclear what the intent behind the council's proposal was, she plans to work with the nine-member council and executive staff members in the coming days and weeks to learn more and to help them complete a study on the proposal with the UAC's interests in mind.

“I think that the power of the UACs is in their ability to address local issues, and I would hate to see that diluted in any way,” she said. “We are interested in a solution that would allow the county to strengthen its relationship with unincorporated area residents.”

County council member Reagan Dunn, who initially floated the proposal, was unable to be reached for comment.

Though much is still unknown about how a combined unincorporated area commission may look or function, some Islanders can't imagine Vashon benefitting from such a change.

Hilary Emmer, VMICC's treasurer and only sitting board member, believes that Vashon has little in common with other UACs in the county, which would make collaboration difficult.

“I certainly don't want people in Maple Valley or Four Creeks or Issaquah saying what's good for us or bad for us. That doesn't make sense to me,” she said.

In addition, Emmer said, Vashon's community council is unique in that every Islander over 18 is technically a member of the council and is eligible to vote. She worries that a combined council would contradict current VMICC bylaws and take away Islanders' ability to vote on issues that matter to them.

“It would take away the power of the people,” she said.

Jean Bosch, former president of the community council, also questioned how a combined council would work when the VMICC's interests are so different than those of other UACs.

“I would guess Vashon has fewer commonalities with the other UACs,” she said. “It probably makes more sense for them to speak as one voice than it does for us.”

Bosch suggested that if the county council does eventually decide to combine the UACs, perhaps Vashon's council could carry on in another form, continuing to provide a venue for community forums and a way for the county to communicate with Vashon.

“Perhaps people could be appointed from the community council to that (new) body. … I think if it happens Vashon will want to participate, but it certainly won't be the same kind of forum.”

Even county executive Dow Constantine seemed puzzled about the county's proposal. Calling himself a supporter of UACs, he said that the different needs and perspectives of each community should be respected, and he questioned whether a combined council could do that.

“It would miss the whole point because Vashon and Skyway and suburbs of Woodinville have very little to do with each other besides being outside a major city,” he said.

Constantine also expressed concern that the 2011 budget drastically defunded the UACs.

The total funding provided to UACs was cut from $391,000 this year to just under $54,000 for 2011. Council spokesman Simon Farretta said that money includes both funding for staff positions and for the UACs’ operating budgets. As a result, two community service representatives — Marissa Alegria and Bong Santo Domingo — will lose their positions.

Santo Domingo has worked closely with the VMICC for several years as the council's liaison to King County. Emmer said she was unsure how the council would move forward without him.

“Bong has been there for us. He always tries to pursue our issues and get what we want,” she said. “I'm not sure how we're going to work and be a UAC if we don't have a liaison.”

Smith, the county's unincorporated area relations manager, said the UACs will also receive less funding next year, though it is still unknown how much their budgets will be reduced.

Emmer wasn't happy to hear that the UACs would loose funding, but at the same time, she said, she believes the VMICC can get by on less than the $10,000 it is annually allotted. She said this year was the first in her memory that the council spent its entire budget, in part because it held an election.

“I don't think the other UACs spend all their money either,” she said. “This year it may be a realistic budget.”

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