Editorial — Finding hope at KCLS: Perhaps now they’ll listen

Vashon activists who have spent countless hours trying to get the King County Library System to listen to them and the Island residents they represent are understandably frustrated. Every time they turn around, it seems, they’re shut out of the process.

Last year, once it became clear the branch would remain at Ober Park, they wanted to do what other communities have done and form a committee to work closely with KCLS on helping to shape the look and feel of an expanded Vashon Library.

But Bill Ptacek, KCLS’s executive director, said such committees could be empaneled only by local governments; since Vashon is unincorporated, he said, it didn’t have the power to establish such a group. Even a letter from then-King County Councilman Dow Constantine could not get him to budge.

Last week, Vashon activists took another run at it.

The group, now an official committee acting under the auspices of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, had hoped to hold a forum later this month to garner input about the expansion — early enough in the process to provide a meaningful contribution.

Islander Bonnie de Steiguer, who chairs the committee, went before the KCLS board last week to discuss the proposed forum and to ask if representatives from Vashon could meet with KCLS’s facilities planning team afterwards to present what they hear. “We believe this approach will help KCLS gain the support of the community,” de Steiguer told the KCLS board.

Ptacek said no. His reasoning: a public process is already in place.

If ever there were an executive with a tin ear, Ptacek is it. He may be a strong administrator (his library system is the third largest in the country), but on Vashon, over and over again, he comes across as out of touch.

And indeed, the $90 million library network he oversees has virtually no system of checks and balances to keep it in line. It’s not a part of county government. KCLS is its own taxing district. Ptacek answers only to his trustees, who are appointed by the county council in what observers say is a rubber-stamp process.

Little wonder Island activists have felt thwarted in their efforts to play a role in the future of their library.

At the same time, there are signs of hope. The fact is, KCLS listened a year when it decided to keep the branch at Ober Park. What’s more, there are four public meetings scheduled between KCLS and the Island community, the first one likely next month. The meetings, which include two with the Vashon Park District, should enable Islanders to take a look at how the project is shaping up and voice their support and concerns.

Finally, KCLS has made an administrative change, placing Vashon in a cluster overseen by Donna McMillen, a seasoned administrator who seems friendly, open and eminently reasonable.

She likes Vashon Island. She seems to appreciate community participation. And in an interview earlier this week, she noted several times that she was getting input from those closest to the issues facing the Vashon Library — the staff who work there every day.

The relationship between Vashon and KCLS has been rocky for years. One skilled administrator can’t erase that history. But it’s possible there’s someone in place who knows how to listen and who shares our sensibilities. We urge those who have been dogging this issue for years to take heart and not give up.

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