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Vashon-Maury Community Council board resigns in wake of legal analysis

All nine members of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council’s board resigned last week in the wake of a King County legal analysis that says the council needs to comply with the state’s far-reaching public records act.

Jean Bosch, who chaired the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC), resigned Tuesday — one day after a tense exchange with Islander Tom Bangasser, who stood up at a VMICC meeting to discuss the issue, refusing to sit down when Bosch told him he was out of order.

Since then, and in quick succession, the other eight followed — with the last one, Jack Barbash, stepping down on Sunday.

A few of the board members declined to comment on the unprecedented situation. Those who did, however, all cited the same reasons: Complying with 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 document it fails to provide — could prove time-consuming for the all-volunteer board. What’s more, some said, they feared the council’s limited liability insurance puts them personally at risk, should the council be found in violation of the act.

“I can’t afford to continue as a volunteer,” said Kari Ulatoski, one of the newest members of the board. “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, Joseph Ulatoski, her father and a retired Army general, 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.”

Board member Kyle Cruver concurred: Complying with the public disclosure act, he said last week, 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 resignations sent waves through King County government circles, where some had been paying close attention to the situation on Vashon. County Executive Dow Constantine, in a statement issued Monday, said he was “saddened that so many fine community volunteers feel they can no longer serve in this capacity.”

He stressed, however, that the county issued not a policy decision but “a legal opinion from our attorneys interpreting long-standing state law.”

“While the legal interpretation may be correct,” he added, “I believe that the full application of the state public records act to all-volunteer advisory groups is beyond the spirit of the state law and is an issue the Legislature may wish to address.”

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 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, last Sunday, just days before the county issued its legal analysis, 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.”

Last week, Constantine’s office responded to Bosch’s letter. In a four-page legal analysis issued Thursday, three lawyers in the 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.

Barbash said the reasoning was 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 said he believes the board overreacted to the county’s analysis. Large fines under the public disclosure act, he noted, are extremely rare. At the same time, he added, the board’s en masse resignation suggests the members weren’t committed to the transparency such laws demand.

“It’s a sign that this is a group that doesn’t want to be held responsible,” Bangasser said.

Bangasser 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 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.”

Meanwhile, VMICC board member Hilary Emmer said she plans to put forward a motion at the next community council meeting — which will be held even without a board — 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 would still be able to discuss issues, take stands and lobby the county, 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

Bosch, in a written statement, endorsed Emmer’s idea.

“I think the VMICC’s time as a UAC is over, although I am confident the good relationship we have with county staff will continue,” she said in an e-mail to The Beachcomber. “VMICC was an inclusive, vibrant and necessary part of Island life before entering into the contract to act as a UAC, and this development will not dampen that spirit at all.”

Both Barbash and Roger Fulton, another board member who stepped down last week, also said they found Emmer’s idea compelling.

“I love that idea,” Barbash said. “I think severing ties with King County would just make this much simpler.”

Lauren Smith, the county’s unincorporated area relations manager, said the county would work with whatever organizational structure Vashon residents decide is best.

“We need a solution that will allow those folks to feel that they can come back and participate. I hope our dialogue will result in changes that work better for everyone,” she said.

Bangasser, however, said he’d oppose the effort to disband the VMICC. He said he plans to run for one of the nine seats on the council’s board and hopes to find eight others who will join him.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that (former board members) are trying to scuttle the organization,” he said.

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