A new approach to civic engagement is worth a try | Editorial

Every so often, county government reinvents itself, and so it has again in the way it hopes to engage those 280,000 residents who live in the unincorporated swaths of King County.

Under the new model, devised by aides who work for County Executive Dow Constantine, an interdepartmental team of county officials will create an annual work plan — linked to the countywide budget and strategic plan — for each of its unincorporated areas. Those teams will hold public meetings at least once a year in each unincorporated area (now called a Community Service Area, or CSA) to garner feedback on the plan, ferret out additional information and answer questions.

The county’s goal is, in part, to broaden its reach. The previous system — homegrown community councils such as our own on Vashon Island — reached only a fraction of the residents who live in unincorporated areas. What’s more, the new system creates a new grant program; any civic organization in the unincorporated parts of the county can apply for grants of up to $5,000 to promote civic engagement and activity.

According to a press release from the county, the new approach will provide “a conduit for greater participation” for residents who live in unincorporated King County. At a meeting on Vashon last week, Alan Painter, the county’s new CSA manager, said he believes the Island will benefit from the effort.

Vashon is the first CSA to be established — an easy order because our boundaries are discrete. But at last week’s first CSA meeting, residents expressed some genuine doubts about the new approach.

Will one annual meeting really be enough? Can a government situated across the water — a ferry-ride away — be engaged and responsive?

It’s understandable that residents are confused and concerned. It’s not clear how this new approach will work — especially in a large, complex county facing the crises of budget shortfalls and declining revenue.

At the same time, King County is, as governments go, remarkably accessible and responsive. Formally, officials are talking about one big meeting a year. In reality, several Vashon groups, from the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust to the Friends of Island Center Forest, are in frequent contact with county officials.

Vashon’s community council will continue to invite county officials to attend its monthly meetings. Councilmember Joe McDermott will continue to pay us regular visits. The new head of the King County Ferry District is an Islander who commutes to Seattle on the passenger-only boat. So, too, is the head of the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, one of the biggest county agencies.

Will this new approach work? We don’t know. We, too, wonder about the efficacy of one annual meeting. But we have a high degree of confidence in those county officials who regularly interact with the Island. And we doubt that Vashon Island — noisy, engaged and vibrant — will become the poor stepchild of county government anytime soon.


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