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Bill would make make VMICC exempt from public disclosure laws

A controversy over the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council and its status under the state’s far-reaching public disclosure laws has landed in Olympia.

State Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) filed a bill on Friday that would exempt so-called Unincorporated Area Councils — nonprofit bodies that act as a liaison between King County and its unincorporated regions — from the Public Disclosure Act.

The legislation would make clear what some have disputed over the last several months — that an Unincorporated Area Council (UAC) is not a public agency. It would also ensure that those active in a UAC cannot be sued for failing to follow public disclosure laws.

Nelson, who’s been following the debate on Vashon, said she filed Senate Bill 5677 to solve what she called an ongoing problem on the Island, where several board members resigned from the council last summer in part because they feared they could be sued under the Public Disclosure Act.

“You need to make sure our volunteers can do their work for the community and not be harassed,” she said.

Vashon’s community council, she added, “isn’t a local government. It’s a volunteer group that transmits information to King County that everybody can get. ... That some members are afraid of being sued is the defining line to me.”

The measure, which has been referred to a Senate committee where it will likely receive a hearing later this month, contains what Nelson called a strong statement of legislative intent. Specifically, according to

the bill, the legislature “intends to clarify that the public records act was not intended to be a tool to be misused to discourage volunteerism through lawsuits, threats of lawsuits or any form of harassment.”

Nelson said she believes it will find some traction in the Legislature. “I think our story is very compelling,” she said.

News of the legislation quickly spread among those who are paying close attention to a controversy that continues to rock the VMICC. Some raised concern about the measure.

“Personally, I’m against the diminishment of transparency,” said Tim Johnson, newly elected as president of the VMICC’s nine-member board. Stressing that he was speaking for himself, not the council’s board, he added: “I don’t like moving away from transparency.”

Tom Bangasser, another member of the VMICC board and one of the players at the center of the current controversy, was circumspect. Bangasser has filed three public disclosure requests directed at others active in VMICC circles.

“I think at this early stage we should probably agree that it would be best to research this matter further before jumping to uninformed conclusions. Perhaps you should request clarification from Sharon as to whom she consulted, when and why. As for me, as an individual, well, I’m a big supporter of open government,” he said in an e-mail to The Beachcomber.

But Craig Beles, a lawyer and Fulbright Award recipient active in community council issues, said he supports the measure.

Beles chaired the council in 1996 when the county formalized its relationship with it and declared it a UAC. At the time, he said, he and others wanted a stronger council — one that had governmental authority, but the county’s lawyers at the time said that wasn’t possible under the county’s charter.

Nelson’s bill, he added, clears up this confusion — without the expense of heading to court for a declaratory judgment.

“I think it makes sense,” he said.

County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the council, said he, too, supports Nelson’s bill.

“I think it’s a strong and solid statement about what the intent of UACs is and the volunteer participation of citizens in local government and hope that it is successful,” he said.

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