After high-level discussions, Vashon's elves are poised to return

After a media storm that thrust Vashon’s colorfully garbed elves into a regional spotlight, the King County Sheriff’s Office and the Island’s chamber of commerce have worked with the traffic-stopping fundraisers to craft a compromise.

The elves will return to the center of town, though drivers will be asked to pull to the side of the road to hand over their bills and loose change rather than stopping in the actual intersection.

Debi Richards, executive director of the chamber, came up with the plan after she and Sgt. John Hall with the sheriff’s office met to discuss a solution. Last week, after the two head elves — Tag Gornall and Bernie O’Malley — agreed to the plan, she asked businesses at the four-way stop if they’d willingly sacrifice some spots in front of their stores to the elves. All said yes, according to Richards.

So now the elves are in the process of creating what they’re calling Candy Cane Lanes, pullouts into the parking strip along the highway and Bank Road where drivers can pull over, donate some money and re-enter the traffic. The pullouts will be marked by colorful, ribbon-bedecked barriers.

Gornall and O’Malley said the new system won’t be nearly as effective as elves standing in the middle of the street flagging down drivers, as they have for a few years now.

“It will be more difficult to get people’s attention,” O’Malley said.

But the two men, whose operation was unexpectedly shut down last week by a sheriff’s deputy, said they’re open to it. “We have to try it,” O’Malley said.

The elves’ unexpected eviction from Vashon’s busiest intersection grabbed attention in the region when a KOMO news reporter came to the Island to cover the story and conservative talk show host John Carlson railed against the sheriff’s decision on his KOMO radio talk show. The stories caught Sgt. Cindi West, a spokesperson for the county’s sheriff’s office, by surprise. She was driving home when she heard Carlson berating her office and returned to work the next day wondering about a solution.

Richards, meanwhile, was also thinking about the issue, concerned because of the importance of the fundraising effort on Vashon. The donations are slated for Vashon Youth & Family Services, which has had to dip into its reserves to meet the many requests for financial help it has received over the course of the region’s long-lasting recession.

In the last few years, the elves — whose ranks have grown over time — have raised as much as $20,000 during the Christmas season.

“I felt so bad,” Richards said of the sheriff office’s decision to end the elves’ operation. “I just thought there had to be a way. And I knew if we took them off the road, it would never work. The reason they can raise so much money is because it’s an impulse donation. They’ve got to be on the street.”

Richards is pleased everyone — especially the businesses that might be affected — agreed to the plan. She’s optimistic it will work.

“We’re hoping it’s a solution. The first day out, there will be a little confusion about how this works,” she said.

O’Malley and Gornall, meanwhile, are concerned about the time they’ve lost due to the kerfuffle. “We’re behind on collections,” O’Malley said.

But Gornall, the more philosophical of the two, said he believes time will ultimately be on the elves’ side, and they’ll simply have to work harder.

“Elves are immortal,” he noted.


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