County councilmember Jan Drago visits Vashon, promises to work on library issue

Jan Drago talks to Islanders Carla Okigwe and May Gerstle Monday night. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Jan Drago talks to Islanders Carla Okigwe and May Gerstle Monday night.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

King County Councilwoman Jan Drago told Islanders Monday night that she believes the county council should be more involved in selecting the trustees who oversee the countywide library system.

Drago, newly appointed to the nine-member county council, said she recently met with Vashon library activist Bonnie de Steiguer and, as a result, has come to understand some of the frustrations Islanders have expressed about the King County Library System’s apparent lack of accountability.

“I think there’s a basis for your concern,” she told the 50 or so Islanders gathered at the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council meeting at McMurray Middle School. Noting that the county council doesn’t seem to play an active role in determining who should serve as trustees, she added, “It seems to me that the process could be more open.”

She also made public a letter that she sent last week to Bill Ptacek, who heads the county library system, urging him to allow greater citizen involvement in the library system’s plans to expand the Vashon branch.

“This community has a lot of good ideas and expertise that you could utilize to your advantage,” she said in the letter. “I encourage you to take this opportunity to gain the trust of the residents of Vashon by allowing them to participate in this library expansion project in a collaborative way.”

Drago, in her first meeting with the community council, touched upon several issues of importance to Islanders — from the viability of the county ferry district, which she now chairs, to the Island’s tax rate, which is higher than some of the other taxing districts in the county.

But she began her 45-minute give-and-take with Islanders by discussing the situation around Vashon’s library project, a contentious issue that has pitted Island activists against the library system administration for the past two years. Drago, who served on the Seattle City Council for 16 years before beginning her temporary stint on the county council, said she was often impressed by how the Seattle City Library engaged local communities when it was building or remodeling a library.

“For each library they built, they went out to the community and asked, ‘What are your hopes and dreams?’” she said of the city library administration.

“I’ve learned that politicians and community members can’t design a library,” she added. “But you can have input.”

Drago, 69, a seasoned politician who lost in a primary challenge for Seattle mayor last August, was appointed to fill the vacancy created on the county council when Dow Constantine was elected county executive. She said at the time she wouldn’t run in November to fill the final year of Constantine’s term.

After three months on the job, she told Vashon residents, she’s enjoying it immensely. Seattle city councilmembers serve the entire city, she noted, but on the county council, she represents a district — Vashon, West Seattle, Burien and Normandy Park — a role that hearkens back to her small town roots in Michigan.

After listening to several announcements about upcoming meetings, recycling efforts and citizen initiatives, she stood before the group and smiled: “This is grassroots democracy in action.”

She said she decided not to run for the county council position in part because campaigning for office has grown costlier and nastier in recent years.

“I’m just tired of campaigning,” she said.

But for the eight months or so that she’ll be in office, she promised Islanders that she’d pay attention to their issues, including the King County Ferry District, which operates the popular passenger-only ferry between Vashon and Downtown Seattle. She arrived on the Island Monday night via the PO boat, she said, where the captain invited her into the pilot house.

“I’ve always been a strong believer in water-borne transportation,” she said.

Her primary goal as chair of the ferry district, she added, “is to stabilize the service we have and make sure it’s reliable.”

But the county faces a tough haul in the next several months as it works to close a huge financial shortfall, she added, one that will be made particularly difficult since it follows previous rounds of budget cuts.

She also sounded an alarm over the situation surrounding Metro, which is facing financial difficulties at the same time that more and more people are finally opting to ride buses.

“It’s a terrible, terrible situation,” she said.

After Drago’s talk, de Steiguer, one of several Islanders who has played an active role on the Vashon library issue, said she was heartened by Drago’s remarks about the county library system.

“She seems to be listening to us and taking us seriously,” de Steiguer said. “I’m encouraged.”

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