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Six say they can bring needed change at the park district

By SUSAN RIEMER
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Reporter
October 15, 2013 · Updated 9:32 AM
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Park board candidate Stephen Evans speaks at last week’s forum. Other park board candidates, from left, are Lu-Ann Branch, Doug Ostrom, Robin Magonegil, Scott Harvey and John Hopkins. / Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Only three can be elected in a race that has gathered significant public attention. Candidates for the board of the Vashon Park District spoke at a public forum last week and talked with The Beachcomber about why they believe they would be an asset to the struggling agency. Watch next week’s paper for information on the race for Water District 19.

POSITION NUMBER 2

Lu-Ann Branch

Lu-Ann Branch has served on the park district board for four years and says she would like the opportunity to serve another term to apply what she has learned for improved fiscal responsibility and overall transparency.

On the board, Branch, an avid swimmer and athletic coach, has served as a champion of the Vashon Pool, she said. Pools do not break even, she noted, but the district has made great strides in that direction since taking over its operations from King County in 2010.

“Every year we have reduced the cost to the public,” she said at the recent forum.

She also noted that her goals include reducing the district’s debt, creating a culture where the board reaches out to the public and creating transparency in everything the district does.

Several people commented on the lack of clarity in the district’s financial reporting, and Branch invited anyone with questions to be in touch with her.

“The budget details are always available and open to the public,” she said.

Branch, who has an MBA in International Business, is currently a triathlon coach and personal trainer. She is the mother of two teenagers, and she and other family members use the parks in a variety of ways, she said, including running and hiking in the parks, playing on a softball team, swimming and playing soccer, activities that prompted her to run for the board four years ago.

“I felt like it was a good way to give back,” she said.

One audience member at the forum asked incumbents Branch and Hopkins why they sometimes voiced opinions counter to their colleagues but then voted with them anyway.

Branch said many of those votes involved the fields project, and while she had concerns, she felt it was in many ways too late to vote otherwise.

“The train had left the station,” she said.

In addition to serving at the district, Branch said she is the president of the board at the Unitarian Fellowship, is on two King County open space advisory groups and has served as a treasurer of other boards in the past.

Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans, a patent lawyer, is fairly new to the island and said he chose to run for the parks commission because of the negative information he frequently heard and read about the district.

Evans has served in a number of leadership positions, he said, and believes leadership at the park board should improve.

“It’s not rocket science to do it well,” he said in a recent interview. “You must have a good mission and know how to manage.”

His top priority, he said, is for the board to reengage with the community and regain trust. He hopes to address issues of the past and move forward with transparency and community participation.

“It’s the only way forward, I think,” he said. “With that comes trust, bonding and camaraderie … and everything like that, and then really fantastic things are possible.”

An additional top priority is fiscal responsibility, he said.

At the forum he noted that as a new person to the island, he could bring new visions and new directions to the board, including ideas to involve youth.

Since deciding to run for the board, a family obligation has kept him from attending many meetings, but he has watched online clips and frequently talked with people who attended to stay abreast of the issues.

One audience member at the forum asked about conflict resolution skills, and Evans noted he is a trained mediator. Part of being successful in conflict, he said, is “knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.”

“At the end of the day, it is about solutions,” he said.

Evans created a website for his candidacy, www.vashonparksforall.com, and suggested the domain could one day be used to gather public input for the district.

 

POSITION NUMBER 4

Robin Magonegil

Robin Magonegil says that she has a strong sense of what it means to be a public servant, so  when a fellow islander asked her  to run for an open park commissioner seat, she said yes.

Magonegil is the mother of two children, ages 7 and 9, and her family is an avid user of the parks, she said at the candidates’ forum. They are members of the Burton Adventure Recreation Center (BARC); her kids play a variety of sports, which she also coaches, and they also spend time hiking in the local parks and swimming at the public pool.  This broad base of interests would serve her well on the board, she said.

“I would advocate for a lot, for the island as a whole,” she said in an interview following the forum.

Since deciding to run for commissioner in August, she has attended  four  or five commissioner meetings, she said, and has watched clips of several other meetings on YouTube, and said that one of her priorities would be to improve the tone of the meetings.

“I am appalled at the way the public is treated,” she said.

She has also reached out to several park district constituents, she said, including former executive director Jan Milligan; Scott Bonney, the manager of the Vashon Pool; representatives from the school district and BARC, and Tom Dean, the executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust.

“A lot of those relationships have soured,” she said.

Magonegil has bachelor’s degrees in English, psychology and theology and worked for more than 20 years in the non-profit social justice field. Currently, she is the assistant to the city planning director in Seattle. In that position, she noted, she attends public meetings frequently.

She said she understands accounting, is the treasurer at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit and knows how to read a balance sheet. Looking ahead,  she said her priorities include getting the district’s financial house in order and being open to the public.

“We need to be very transparent in our dealings, and I am not sure that has happened with this board,” she said. “That has to change.”

Magonegil is the only candidate so far to put up yard signs and also promotes her candidacy on Facebook at www.facebook.com/magonegilforvashonparksdistrict.

Doug Ostrom

Doug Ostrom told the crowd at the public forum that often it is one particular interest that makes someone run for a board such as the park district, but in his case it is interest in a broad range of issues that has fueled his desire to serve as a commissioner.

“I am interested in representing the entire island,” he said.

Ostrom, who has a doctoral degree in economics, is a part-time economics professor, has taught accounting and is the treasurer at his church.

In a recent interview with The Beachcomber, Ostrom said that as he has followed the park district, he has been “baffled and distressed” by the financial picture and the board’s decision-making process. He believes his financial background could be helpful, he said, and decided to run.

“It looked as though I could make a contribution,” he said.

He noted  that park users are athletic and unathletic, young and old — with island demographics tipping toward an older population — and the park district should consider those factors in its planning processes.

He noted that economics is about making choices and that the district has many properties, such as Jensen Point, Point Robinson and Lisabeula, that are used by many people but less intensively than how a smaller number of people use a project such as the athletic fields.

“We have to keep that kind of thing in mind,” he said.

Responding to a question at the forum, Ostrom said that the park district budget is constrained by decreased levy funds and considerable money spent at the VES fields, but with time, those constraints will ease.

“We do not have short-term flexibility,” he said. “But we do have long-term flexibility.”

When it comes to that long-term planning, he said the board should listen and incorporate all  stakeholders’ comments.

For the short term, he noted the best the board will be able to do is finish the fields project in the most cost-effective manner possible.

“What we have to do is make sure (the fields) are usable and have a budget that does not bankrupt us,” he said.

POSITION NUMBER 5

Scott Harvey

Scott Harvey,  a small business advisor and lender with Fortune Bank in Seattle, said he has based his candidacy on three tenets: inclusion, fiscal responsibility and transparency.

The decision to run for the park board came easily, he said.

“The board’s a mess,” he said. “I learned a long time ago … if you are not willing to do the work, you have no right to complain.”

Harvey, who has an MBA in finance, joined the park district’s Oversight Committee when it formed early this year to provide the district with advice for the VES fields project. In addition to meeting frequently with that group, Harvey said he has attended about three-quarters of the district’s meetings in the last several months.

At the community forum, he said that his priorities would be to bring all district stakeholders to the table and build a reserve of no less than $300,000 to use if needed instead of taking out loans, as has become the district’s common practice.

“It is a waste of money to borrow money each year,” he said.

He also noted he believes there should be limits on how much money the district can borrow without voter approval.

“It is reprehensible that the district borrowed $400,000 without a public vote,” he said, referencing the non-voter approved bond the district secured in 2011 for the fields project.

In an interview, Harvey noted that he believes the district must change the way it operates and “pay as we go” in part so that other businesses will want to work with it. The district delayed payments to island contractors who worked on the fields project because it did not have the money to pay them, he said, characterizing that practice as “unbelievable arrogance.”

“Fewer people are interested in doing business with us,” he said. “They can’t trust us.”

One audience member at the forum asked the candidates about their conflict resolution skills, noting that the current board has become known for holding stressful meetings.

“The key to conflict resolution is listening,” Harvey said.

John Hopkins

John Hopkins, one of two incumbents running for reelection, was appointed to the park board at the end of 2012.

Hopkins joined the board at a difficult time for the district and had just finished a term on the board of Vashon Community Care, where he had served for six years, he said.

“I saw I could contribute something,” he said. “People tell me I have a calming effect on agitated groups of people.”

At the candidates’ forum, Hopkins offered his ideas of what a public board should be responsible for, including adopting a mission statement after much public input, developing a three-year business plan and engaging the community.

Since moving to the island 1966, he has been involved in many volunteer positions in addition to his recent tenure at VCC.  He served on the board of trustees at the country club twice, he said, was the president of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council twice, served on the board of Vashon Youth & Family Services and is a member of Rotary.

“I like being involved in the community,” he said.

Like Branch, Hopkins responded to a question from an audience member, inquiring why he often voted with the other commissioners, even when he raised concerns about the subject they were voting on.

“Sometimes I have voted for business decisions that have gone against my conscience,” he said. “I regret that.”

Before retiring, Hopkins worked as a senior executive for insurance companies. In that capacity, he said, he attended a lot of board meetings and developed a good understanding of how boards work.

If reelected, he said he would like to improve financial reporting so that commissioners could easily see a clear financial picture of the district, something he said is not possible now.

Following the meeting, he said the district’s financial situation is not as dire as many people think, though one of his priorities is to set the district on a sound financial path.

At the forum one islander asked about the park district and bankruptcy.

“We’ve got the funds,” Hopkins responded.” We’re just not going to be able to have any good times next year.”

 


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