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Community councils lose official status as county ushers in new model for outreach

The King County Council voted unanimously last week to alter the way it engages citizens in its unincorporated areas — a move that means Vashon’s community council will no longer serve as the official liaison between the Island and the county.

Under the new model for public outreach, the county will establish several community service areas in an effort to better serve the 285,000 residents who live in the large swath of geography that makes up the county’s unincorporated areas.

The shift means that the county’s six unincorporated area councils (UACs), including the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, will no longer hold an official status with the county, automatically receive county funds or have to comply with the demands of the Public Records Act. The UACs were developed in 1994. They currently represent about one-third of the citizens in unincorporated King County.

County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the nine-member county council, sponsored the legislation, which was proposed by County Executive Dow Constantine earlier this year. In a prepared statement, he said he did so because he believes the new approach “will support strong community leadership.” He could not be reached for comment.

Exactly how the new system will work is not completely clear, according to Lauren Smith, a top aide to Constantine and the staffer who oversees the county’s relationships with its unincorporated areas. Tentatively planned are occasional meetings between county staff and citizens in the unincorporated areas, where staff will present a list of the issues and policies they’re working on of relevance to that region and invite participation and comment from those in attendance, she said.

VMICC could participate in such a meeting, as could any other organization that was interested, she said. 

“It’s a framework right now,” she added. “What we’re going to spend the next eight weeks doing is figuring out how it will work.”

Tim Johnson, president of the board for Vashon’s community council, said the legislation is significant. “It will end the UAC era as we know it,” he said.

“I’m peeved about it,” he added. “We lost something good for a lot of people.”

But the fact that Vashon had an active community council long before the county created the UAC framework suggests the Island could return to those roots, he said.

“I don’t think we should close up shop because we didn’t get our way,” he said. “We played a role for over 60 years prior to our official status, and I think a lot of beneficial things got done. ... I think we should still work hard to find out what’s on people’s minds.”

The move comes at a time when many have been questioning the effectiveness and style of the current VMICC, which critics say has gotten bogged down in rules and procedures over the last year and has accomplished little. It also comes as another group is taking shape that hopes to provide a forum for community discussion.

The All-Island Forum, which is planning to launch officially in September, has been meeting for several months in an effort to find a new kind of structure for community discussion. 

“We are really beginning, and we’ve got an organic, evolving framework that can be adjusted as we explore and experience this together,” said Mary G.L. Shackelford, one of the Islanders active in the new group.

Organizers of the All-Island Forum aren’t trying to displace the VMICC, Shackelford added. This group will likely be different; there won’t be any standing committees, for instance, and it will explore issues on a request-driven basis. She also said it will be hierarchically flat and use a variety of means to encourage participation and engagement.

“It’s a genuine effort to create a place that’s fun and interesting and celebratory to talk about issues of concern on the Island,” Shackelford said.

Johnson, for his part, said he doesn’t see the All-Island Forum as a threat to the VMICC. “They’re not my cup of tea. They’re a little touchy-feely for me. ... But I’m not looking at them as the enemy,” he said. “They’ll either succeed or fail based on the merits of how they do business.”

 

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