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Community council finds its way without King County

Later this month, Vashon’s community council will host a public meeting with the second in command at the King County Sheriff’s Office, giving Islanders an opportunity to explore a sensitive issue — police staffing levels on Vashon — with a high-ranking official.

To Tim Johnson, chair of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC), that visit underscores the council’s ongoing relevance.

“Our mission is to worry less about quorums and more about content,” he said. His personal mantra, he added, is simple: “Let’s just worry about bringing good information to the Island.”

It’s a real issue to the sometimes spirited and free-wheeling community council, which has gone through a few permutations over the years. The council hasn’t had a quorum — 25 people — since October. Kyle Cruver, nominated in December to become the sixth board member, has yet to be officially named to the board because it takes a quorum to make that happen.

But the issue of relevance could become trickier, some say, now that the community council has lost a role it held for years — that of acting as an official liaison between Islanders and King County government, an administration that often seems far away from the ferry-dependent Island.

As of January, Vashon’s community council — like King County’s five other unincorporated area councils or UACs — no longer has a contract with the county giving it a quasi-governmental role on Vashon. Nor does it receive a $10,000 annual grant from the county, which covered a range of incidental needs — room rental fees and copying fees, for instance — as well as insurance to indemnify board members in the event the board gets sued.

Johnson said the council has enough money to cover its insurance costs for a while; other expenses, meanwhile, are being picked up by board members, he said.

The council plans to fundraise and apply for grants to cover its costs moving forward. But the official change in status, he said, doesn’t mean the community council’s role will alter on Vashon.

“The community council has lasted as long as it has not because of official funding but because it was the place where people got together to talk about Island issues,” he said.

Cruver agrees. “If you’re having a valuable discussion and creating a forum that invites conversation, you’re creating something of value for the community that will be funded one way or another,” he said.

Both Johnson and Cruver believe the community council will continue to deliver, despite a couple of rocky years, where conflict — more than meaningful discussion — marked the process.

“I’m hopeful for the community council,” said Cruver, who was one of nine board members who resigned en masse in August 2010 because of a bitter dispute between the board and Island businessman Tom Bangasser.

Indeed, Johnson sees Cruver’s decision to return as a positive sign. “I’m hopeful that it’s symbolic that this truly is the people’s council,” he said.

But Melvin Mackey, who’s been attending community council meetings for about a decade, said he thinks the council’s future is still uncertain and that it could go either way — toward greater relevance or less — in the months to come.

“My view is that it’s sort of treading water, waiting to see what’s going to happen,” Mackey said.

“Right now, I don’t see it doing much,” he added. “But it has the potential for doing things.”

The community council’s uncertain future comes at a time when county officials are in the throes of establishing a new framework for public engagement with the 280,000 people who live in unincorporated King County. Under a policy outlined by County Executive Dow Constantine last year, those residents who don’t live within a city will be represented by community service areas, geographically discrete regions where one county official will act as a primary point of contact for residents.

An interdepartmental team will “provide seamless and coordinated service delivery,” according to a new color brochure the county created about community service areas. A broadly advertised public meeting will be hosted at least once a year, and an annual community work program will be developed for the service area, outlining issues that the county expects to address over the course of the year, the brochure says.

The county expects to finalize its plan for community service areas this spring, a few months behind schedule, and forward it to the Metropolitan King County Council for approval; the new framework should go into effect this summer.

But even with a new official structure in place, some in the county believe community councils like the one on Vashon will still have a voice in the halls of county government. The contractual arrangement between the county and VMICC, said Lauren Smith, the county’s unincorporated area relations manager, created a “technical relationship.”

“But the substance of the relationship doesn’t have to change,” she said.

The community council won’t be the only organization the county looks to for direction and input, she said, noting that a new group — the All Island Forum — is also working to establish itself as a forum for community discussion and direction.

“Under our new framework, we will be reaching out to the community council as we have in the past, just as we will with other groups,” Smith said.

Julia Larson, a rural economic strategy coordinator for the county and the project manager for the new community service areas, agreed. “We’re hoping to work with the UACs (unincorporated area councils) as long as they exist,” she said. “This (effort) is simply to make us more inclusive.”

Johnson, with the VMICC, said he’s concerned about the county’s new approach, noting that it’s already taking longer to get off the ground than officials said it would. “One of our complaints … is that it would be a large and complicated endeavor, and I think that’s proving to be the case,” he said.

Many on Vashon, he added, are already concerned about the Island’s “somewhat diminished voice” in the county, a government that serves a region that’s largely urbanized.

“It’s going to be difficult with the system they’ve put together,” he added. “They have very few staffers trying to cover a very large area.”

But, he noted, the fight over the UAC structure is largely over, and now, he said, it’s up to the VMICC to prove to the county that its voice is one worth listening to. Mackey agrees, noting that he plans to continue to attend the meetings in the hope that it remains relevant.

“I have an investment in the community council because I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Mackey said. “And if anything good happens, I want to be there to support it.”

 

The Vashon Maury Island Community Council’s next meeting will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, when Chief Dep. Steve Strachan, second in command at the King County Sheriff’s Office, is expected to make a presentation. The meeting will be held at McMurray Middle School.

To see the county’s latest brochure on its framework for public engagement in unincorporated areas, go to http://your.kingcounty.gov/dnrp/library/dnrp-directors-office/rural/ua-voice-to-residents.pdf.

 

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