Thanks to The Beachcomber for suggesting a revival of the community council, (“Vashon Community Council: Is it time to bring it back?” May 30). I was one of the community council board members who resigned in 2010, precipitating the ultimate collapse of the council. The impetus of the resignation was the threat of Public Records Act lawsuits against individual board members. Liability would have been based on the status of the council as a “government” within the meaning of the Act.
At that time, the county attorney had issued an opinion to the effect that the council was a government, in part, because it was officially recognized as an unincorporated area council by the county and because it received county funds to support its operations. The Public Records Act, along with its duties and liabilities, applies only to governments. The identification of the council as a government, and the consequent concern about lawsuits against board members, led to the resignations. Ultimately, the county abandoned its area council program altogether. The community council labored on a little longer in a modified form, but without much public participation, and essentially dissolved.
I wanted to offer some perspective to the community based on my experience. I believe that any revitalized community council should take measures to insure it does not come within the purview of the Public Records Act. Complying with this law involves more than just letting citizens inspect and copy the organization’s documents. The organization would need to prepare and make available indexes of all documents and an index of allowable exemptions. A central location and document storage system could be required. Governmental agencies hire trained personnel for this work.
Coming into strict compliance with the act would likely cost more than any money the organization could expect to get from the county. And if a mistake is made and the organization is sued, who will pay any penalties? Governments have resources, including taxing power, to cover the possibility of such expenses. A local community forum would have no such resources. And citizens would be reluctant to serve on the board if the threat of individual liability were present.
I fully support accountability and transparency for any community organization, but the record-keeping standard required for an organization deemed to be “governmental” is beyond the scope of a volunteer-run informal community forum. If the council were to be reestablished, I would suggest that it be independent of the county. It should not seek or accept official county recognition in any form that could be considered as official status or governmental function, which includes taking county funds for its operations. That could mean holding the elections at the meetings instead of by mail, and finding a donated meeting space. But the community council operated successfully under these conditions for many years before it became county-recognized.
The benefits of county recognition and funding the previous council received were not worth the drawbacks. The council functioned as a grassroots unofficial citizens’ forum for many years. During that time, islanders met, discussed and debated issues of community concern, conducted a vote and informed the county of the views of the majority of those attending. The county was free to consider or disregard our views, but my impression was that the county generally appreciated the voice that the council provided.
These comments are cautionary, and are not intended to discourage a revival of the council. The council served an important community need for a local forum to meet and share our common interests and concerns. We could very much benefit from such an organization to address current issues, as The Beachcomber points out in its May 30 editorial. I hope it happens.
— Bill Tobin is a retired attorney who served two terms as president of the community council in the early 1990s and one term as vice president in 2009-10.