County presents pilot program to engage Vashon residents

Islanders who attended a meeting to introduce King County’s Community Service Area program were cautiously optimistic about the county’s new plan for engaging Vashon residents.

About a dozen county officials came to Vashon for the meeting, including county Council-member Joe McDermott and Alan Painter, the newly appointed Community Service Area (CSA) manager.

At the meeting, which took place Tuesday at McMurray Middle school, officials presented the framework of the CSA program, which they called a work in progress.

They explained how King County — an administration that often seems far away from the ferry-dependent Island — might communicate with Islanders in the future. They also handed out what they called the 2012-2013 work plan, a document that outlined current county projects on Vashon as well as issues the county plans to address in the following year — everything from increasing the water taxi’s capacity to restructuring Vashon’s police service. Officials suggested Islanders’ input would help shape the work plan in the future and said a new grant program would provide funding projects that had community support.

“I think the majority of the people came out of there with a little bounce in their step, and looking at this as an opportunity to start something new,” said Islander Tag Gornall after the meeting.

The new approach to engaging residents of unincorporated King County comes after the county in January ended its contract with the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council — along with the five other unincorporated area councils — stripping it of its semi-official status and pulling its funding.

The county is now piloting the CSA program on Vashon, a place Painter said is ideal because of the Island’s distinct boundaries and engaged residents.

“There’s a strong history of community involvement on Vashon, and we wanted to take advantage of that,” he said in a brief interview after the meeting.

The county hopes to get continued feedback from Islanders and work out the kinks before implementing the new model in the rest of unincorporated King County, where up to seven CSAs will represent different areas.

“We’re still figuring out how this process will work,” Julia Larson, a CSA project manager, said at the meeting.

The meeting was attended by about 40 people, many of them high-profile Islanders who have been involved with the community council and the recently formed All Island Forum.

In a somewhat unorthodox move, the county split those in attendance into small groups to get feedback on the new approach and work plan, with county staff leading the discussions.

Many said they were impressed with the clear work the county had put into developing the plan, as well as the wide range of county representatives who were there that night. Before and after the meeting, officials from a variety of departments — from the Solid Waste Division to the Water and Land Resources Division — were available to discuss specific county projects.

However, one common concern expressed in the small discussions was the lack of detail provided on how the county would facilitate outreach and communication with Vashon residents.

Officials say they plan to create an informative website for the Vashon CSA, hold a CSA meeting on Vashon at least once a year and have a single point of contact for residents to communicate with, as well as an interdepartmental team to field specific questions and concerns from Islanders.

Many, however, said these actions didn’t seem like enough and expressed confusion as to how the county would attempt to weigh the collective opinion of Islanders.

“They’re touting this as expanding the opportunities for civic engagement, but I’m not sure how that’s going to work” said Mary Shackelford, who is active in All Island Forum. “I can’t conceive of … how citizen participation can be very effective with one meeting a year.”

Several people suggested that a county representative or ombudsman could be based on the Island, rather than having officials field inquiries from across the water.

“Our group asked that there be some face-to-face time, a regularly scheduled place that a county person would be,” said longtime Islander Ellen Kritzman. “That would be really helpful.”

However, Shackelford said that despite her concerns she was impressed by county officials’ effort to hear Islanders’ thoughts and said they seemed to be heading in the right direction.

“I haven’t ever been to a county meeting where I came out feeling as heard and able to participate. It definitely had an impact on me,” she said.

Tim Johnson, who heads the community council board, said after the meeting that he still thinks having a representative body act as a liaison to the county is the best model. However, he said he was moving forward and believed the community council will have active role to play under the new CSA approach.

“On one side, the county decided to get rid of the official relationship with the community council,” Johnson said. “However, if the county is going to engage with people on the Island, it’s certainly going to need the help and assistance of a variety of groups far and wide, in our case a general interest group for the entire Island.”

Johnson, like many who heard the county’s presentation, thought it remained to be seen if the county would gain traction with the new CSA model. For instance, the work plan, he said, seems like a helpful tool, but only if Islanders are truly involved in shaping the plan in the future.

Painter, who was a top advisor to county executive Dow Constantine before being chosen to head the CSA program, said that in his new role he plans to work with various Vashon groups, including the community council. However, he said, he hoped the CSA would ultimately have a wider reach than the community council does.

“The whole purpose of the CSA is to try to strengthen the engagement of county government with different communities,” he said. “There’s a model that’s been in place on Vashon. … We want to continue what has worked and see what we can do better.”

Painter said that he and other county officials would be back on the Island in less than two months to present what they learned at the meeting and possible revisions to the work plan based on Islanders’ feedback.

Gornall said he would reserve judgement of the new program until he saw it in action, but was impressed with Painter at the meeting and saw his involvement as a good sign.

“He struck me as someone who wants to listen,” he said. “His ears were open and he eyes were bright.”


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