County measure could kill our Unincorporated Area Council

At the end of last year, the King County Council essentially defunded the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC) and the rest of the Unincorporated Area Councils (UACs) and tasked the King County executive with formulating an alternative by April 15. The alternative the county council recommended was a commission of representatives from all of the six current UACs. No explanation for this move was given. Since that time, the county executive’s staff has been meeting internally (and occasionally with the UACs) to facilitate this change.

The UAC system was originated by executive order of then County Executive Gary Locke in 1994 under the Citizens Participation Act (CPI), and adopted by unanimous motions of the King County Council. In recognition of the lack of accountable municipal structures in these areas, and of inadequate participation in county government, the CPI granted official recognition and access to the UACs, creating essentially quasi-governmental agencies with mandatory, advisory access to the elected decision-makers. It was a bold, unusual move, where those in power voluntarily de-centralized representation.

Recently, events ranging from legal action over the re-zoning of the K2 building to public records requests of VMICC board members have stirred controversy regarding the responsibilities of the UACs to comply with the Public Records Act (PRA). Both the state attorney general and the King County prosecutor have agreed that the UACs fall under the act by virtue of the official, funded relationship with the county and the nature of their work. Some have disagreed, and Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) even introduced legislation (it didn’t make it out of committee) to exempt them from these requirements. It is worth noting that both federal and state laws already broadly exempt volunteers in organizations such as ours from personal liability for most actions taken on behalf of the organization. The PRA demands transparency, not personal liability. 

One can only speculate, given their continued silence, what the county council’s motives were (interestingly, they don’t seem to include relief from the PRA, since the proposed commission would be officially funded and recognized). The manner of their actions, coupled with the fact that the county council has previously eliminated its own committee devoted to interfacing with the UACs, would seem to indicate that perhaps the current generation of council members simply has a less magnanimous view of citizen participation than that of its predecessors. It has asked County Executive Dow Constantine to carry the water on this consolidation of representation by tasking him with proposing a new, diminished system. 

The county executive’s proposal does this work with deadly effectiveness, and most deadly of all, does so in direct opposition to the will of those affected. While claiming to include their input, virtually none of their input is represented. The executive’s office bases its task on capitulation to the county council’s position that the current system is not acceptable. Acceptable to whom? It is certainly acceptable to the vast majority of those participating in it. Going even beyond the county council’s mandate, the PRA is defined as too onerous for the UACs to bear, in a paternalistic, “we know what’s best for you” attitude that itself clearly illustrates the need for the strong local representation it seeks to trump. The fact that parts of the unincorporated areas have no councils becomes a motive for eliminating the power and rights of those that do. Representation belongs to those who are willing to show up. It always has. Perhaps some areas just don’t value participation enough, or perhaps the county hasn’t made a very public, concerted effort to reach them. One has to look very hard through the county’s literature or website to find any mention of the UACs, hardly the visible support and advocacy of the system that would be necessary to effectively  grow it. Few King County residents even know the CPI exists. Sadly, it seems they are about to become well informed.

There are those on the Island who support removing ourselves from the UAC system. 

I can respect their views that liability trumps access and that discretionary access is as powerful as mandatory, even while vehemently disagreeing with them. I can support having a frank discussion and then making the decision for ourselves about what level of participation we desire. 

What I cannot support is the idea of passively watching the county make that decision for us, and for the other UACs, at least two of whom will almost certainly dissolve if the county executive’s plan is passed, since they don’t have the economic base to self-fund. That is neither fair nor democratic. So let’s have the discussion. Let’s decide what we want. But let’s also loudly tell the county that this is, in our view, our decision to make, not theirs. Let’s make sure that the decision about representative voices is indeed representative of those voices. All of them.


— Tim Johnson is the president of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council.


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