Vashon's community council in crisis: Majority of the board resigns after county legal analysis
By LESLIE BROWN
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor
August 21, 2010 · Updated 3:17 PM
Eight of the nine members of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council's board resigned this week in the wake of a King County legal analysis that the council has to comply with the state's far-reaching public records act.
Jean Bosch, who chairs the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC), resigned Tuesday, one day after a tense exchange with Islander Tom Bangasser, who refused to sit down when she told him he was out of order.
On Wednesday and Thursday, three other board members — Bill Tobin, Christine Beck and Kari Ulatoski — stepped down. Four others — Kyle Cruver, Hilary Emmer, Roger Fulton and Joe Ulatoski — tendered their resignations on Friday.
Only Jack Barbash remains on the board.
Bosch did not return telephone calls, and neither Tobin nor Beck, reached by The Beachcomber, would comment about their decision to step down.
Kari Ulatoski, reached Thursday, said she felt she had no choice but to resign because of the potential ramifications of the county's analysis.
Complying with the open meetings act is something the board already does, she said. But the public disclosure act — which requires a government agency to turn over a wide array of public documents to those who seek them or face fines of up to $100 a day for each public document it fails to provide — is much more far-reaching and could prove onerous, she said.
What's more, she added, she worries that the community council's limited insurance coverage could prove inadequate, should the council be fined for failure to comply.
"I can't afford to continue as a volunteer," Ulatoski said. "We've been given all of this responsibility, but there's not protection."
The decision to step down was a difficult one, she added. "I'm heartsick about it."
In a letter of resignation, Joe Ulatoski said he too felt he had no choice in light of the county's legal analysis.
"This is an onerous burden to place on volunteers who ultimately have no power to make decisions and whose advice can be ignored at will by King County," he wrote in his letter. "The VMICC, in many ways a toothless tiger, now will have all of the burdens and responsibilities of an entity that has teeth and adequate funding."
Cruver concurred: Complying with the public disclosure act, he said in a brief interview Friday, could require "an immeasurable commitment of time. There's just no way to quantify how many many hundreds of hours of work could be requested by someone."
The county weighed in on the question of whether the community council has to meet the requirements of the state's public records act at Bosch's request. In an Aug. 3 letter to County Executive Dow Constantine, Bosch noted that the council is a nonprofit organization, not a government agency, and that it's the board's belief that it should not have to comply with the state's public records act. At the same time, she added in her letter, legal statements about this question have been inconsistent and the issue continues to dog the council.
Indeed, Sunday night, two weeks after Bosch's letter to Constantine, Bangasser filed a public disclosure request with the community council board, seeking all documents and correspondence over the past two years pertaining to "any VMICC requirements, formation, contracts, King County budgets and/or governance issues."
This week, Constantine's office responded to Bosch. In a four-page legal analysis issued Thursday, three lawyers in the King County prosecutor's office said they believe the VMICC — like the five other unincorporated area councils or UACs — has to comply with both the open meetings act and the state's far-reaching public records act.
The lawyers agreed that the council is not a government agency. But, they said in their analysis, the board functions like a government, receives the lion's share of its budget from the county and is closely involved with county officials.
"While a case could be made that the UACs are independent, volunteer organizations that do not undertake governmental functions, the close interaction between the county and the UACs as well as the extent of county funding for the UACs weigh in favor of applicability of the (Public Records Act)," the lawyers wrote.
The county's legal analysis is similar to one issue last November by Timothy Ford, the open government ombudsman for the state attorney general's office, who also said that King County's UACs "fulfill a basic government function" and should comply with the state's open government laws.
Some board members were troubled by the county and state's analysis.
Jack Barbash, a board member, said the reasoning was confusing and circular: The board can't function like a government agency if it's not a government agency, he said.
"We do not govern," Barbash added. "We have no power. ... We have no ability to tell anybody what to do. We set the agenda, and we provide a forum the conversation. That's all we do."
What's more, he said, the board is comprised of volunteers — many of whom already pour untold hours into the civic organization.
"To get anything besides appreciation and constructive criticism is very disappointing," he said. "We're volunteers. That seems to be lost on people."
Bangasser, however, said he was happy with the county's analysis. "I've always contended they have to comply with the public records act," he said of the VMICC.
He made his latest public disclosure request, he said, because "I'd like to see if they're operating on behalf of the community." VMICC board members and King County officials, he added, have been having conversations with each other about this issue of the council's status. "I want to see what this dialogue is all about."
Bangasser, an Island businessman, began his campaign for more information from both the county and the community council two years ago, after the King County Council agreed to rezone the former K2 manufacturing property — changing it from an industrial to a commercial site. In November 2008, he sought an emergency motion from Vashon's community council, asking the body to support him in his effort to get a raft of information from the county about a rezone that he said was slipped into a county plan update with scant review.
But an emergency motion requires a two-thirds vote of the council's board to move forward, and at that November meeting he lost by one vote. After that, he sued the county, the VMICC and several other entities, charging that the county failed to follow due process when it rezoned the property. His case was thrown out after a King County Superior judge said Bangasser lacked standing to bring it forward.
The latest turn of events, he added, underscores his determination to follow this course — one that he says is his attempt to ensure basic principles of democracy and open government are followed and maintained.
Noting that he's tenacious, he added, "Once I lock in on something, I'm the last person to ever quit. ... Anyone who knows me at all knows I don't quit on something."
Meanwhile, Emmer, VMICC's treasurer, said she's considering putting forward a motion that would dissolve the community council as a UAC and return it to its roots: For decades, before the county chartered UACs, Vashon had a nonprofit organization that hosted community forums and provided a place for town hall-style discussions and debates.
Such a group likely would not have to comply with the public disclosure act and yet still be able to discuss issues, take stands and lobby the county and the county council, she said.
Emmer added that she fully believes in transparency and has comported herself that way in her time on the council's board. But the idea of having to save every e-mail and document and spend hours searching for material to comply with a request "is an undue burden," she said
Both Barbash and Fulton said they found Emmer's idea of dissolving the community council compelling.
"I love that idea," Barbash said. "I think severing ties with King County would just make this much simpler ... and get us free of all this legal stuff."
Lauren Smith, the county's unincorporated area relations manager, said the county would work with whatever organizational structure Vashon residents decide is best.
"It shouldn't change our relationship," she said. "It might change the formality of the relationship."Contact Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor Leslie Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-206-463-9195.