Last week, islander David Vogel hosted the first meeting of a committee to form a new Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, attended by supporters and King County officials who gathered in the multipurpose room at McMurray Middle School to discuss how such a group may best serve islanders today.
Vogel, a former council board member and president from 1986-1993 who recently returned to Vashon after living away, told the audience of more than two dozen — including longtime islanders, business owners and other former board members — that in his memory, the council was an integral part of island life.
Vogel recounted some of the long history of the former group, from providing the county with input about zoning as the 1981 Vashon Community Plan was created, to hearing emerging concerns about the Glacier Northwest Sand and Gravel Pit. Then he opened the floor to questions.
The community council, dating back to the mid-1970s, began as an offshoot of the Chamber of Commerce and Vashon Assembly and originally grew out of the desire for better island representation in the county. Its founders hoped to promote the interests of the island as a whole. Vogel noted that in the past, the council worked successfully with King County, taking the lead on projects such as the community plan, which the county later adopted.
In the past, Vogel said, the council gave equal voice to islanders while providing an opportunity to earnestly consider issues that were raised, benefited by the fact that it did not have the authority to tell people what to do.
“One of the nice things about the community council historically is there’s no rush to judgment,” he said. “If there’s a controversial issue, it doesn’t get on the floor and voted on at that meeting. It’s kicked over to the next meeting, it will be discussed in sub-committee, and that way, people don’t feel like any of the issues are railroaded through.”
Some in the room said they remembered the circumstances as to why the original council ultimately dissolved, when the county, in an effort to deepen its relationships with similar community organizations, designated it as an Unincorporated Area Council and provided $10,000 of operating funds in the 1990s. Many saw that as the beginning of the end, with bitter infighting over how to spend the money, coupled with the challenge of having to comply with the Washington Open Meetings and Public Records Acts as if the council was an official agency of King County.
That would leave the all-volunteer board expected to potentially spend an inordinate amount of time and energy producing copious records of its activities as required under the law or face legal ramifications. But Vogel said he was encouraged to see the unfamiliar faces of those at the meeting who wanted to try again.
“It’s really good to see this kind of community involvement because that’s why I’m back,” he said. “This community — it wasn’t just the fact that we had all these beaches and all this beautiful countryside — it’s a great community.”
John Taylor, director of the Department of Local Services, was in attendance at the meeting. After introducing himself, he said that the department — which holds office hours at the Vashon Chamber of Commerce weekly and operates the community van program — was created last year because, at a granular level, the county recognizes that it has struggled to support those living in small and rural communities.
“We provide regional transit service, garbage service. We treat all the wastewater in the county. We provide these big regional services, but as a unit of government, I don’t think we’ve ever been, and certainly aren’t now, a great municipal government for local people,” he said.
Taylor attributed that to the county’s lack of revenue tools and authorities, while cities have annexed areas within urban growth boundaries and left the county with a smaller tax base.
He added that other councils in unincorporated areas no longer receive county support but still work with the county, having reconfigured themselves in ways that suit the needs of those communities. Those range from small homeowners associations and ad hoc informal groups, to the much larger Greater Maple Valley Unincorporated Area Council, which holds elections and operates by Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct meetings and make decisions. Taylor recommended that those who are interested in leading the formation of an island community council reach out to them for ideas as to what one may look like.
“We welcome this,” he said. “I would love to have an organization that we can go to to have these kinds of conversations. It’s incredibly useful to the county.”
He cautioned, however, that no organization is fully representative of everyone in a community. Nearby White Center has two representative bodies: The North Highline Unincorporated Area Council and the White Center Community Development Association both represent different segments of the community, said Taylor, and their goals are not necessarily in alignment with each other.
“You’re more likely to speak with one voice if you have more people at the table,” he said, noting the island’s many agencies, nonprofits and organizations.
In a phone interview, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said he believes that Local Services will be a valuable resource to organizers of a new Vashon community council, ensuring that county staff and the department are engaged and available to assist the effort. But he said he respected islanders’ wish that such a council remains a community group independent of the county’s direct involvement, bringing a voice to issues unique to Vashon such as ferry service and the nature of being an island, areas where the county could help make improvements.
“There are other rural areas that have some isolation,” he said, noting unincorporated Sammamish Valley, “but being an island with a relatively small population makes it that much more unique [of a challenge] in being able to provide services.”
Vashon’s individuality was in many ways preserved by the original council, according to islander Craig Beles, a mediator and arbitrator who was president of the council for five years. He said the council was available to apply checks and balances of sorts in the event the county made changes on the island without the input of residents, one of the many ways he said the council served Vashon well.
Beles said he expects a new council would prove to be an asset on the island. Like many throughout King County, he said islanders’ relationship with the Department of Permitting and Review is strained on account of frustration over the process of getting proper approval for work, resulting in code violations and frustration in spite of the best intentions of the law. The council, he said, could draw more attention to inefficiencies surrounding permitting and help the county chart a course for better streamlining the process.
“People don’t follow the law because they don’t think they’ll ever get anything done, so you’ve got dozens and dozens of people building or remodeling, and they won’t bother to deal with that department because it will hold them up for years and years and years,” he said.
Beles also said a community council could hear arguments and input from islanders on topics that have been hotly debated in recent times, from the rising cost of living on Vashon to the need for more affordable housing — raising questions about where it is right to build it, how to build it, or who is fit to occupy it — as well as conflicts with septic systems, airplane noise and whether there is any location on the island suitable for an off-leash dog park.
“The community council was never afraid to get into topics that typically would be too hot to handle, like the anti-vaccination argument, but we would wade into things like that from time to time just so we could hash that out and talk about it,” he said.
To Beles, it’s worth giving the council another shot.
“People knew they could come to the community council, they could share their concerns or grievances, and we would have a united voice,” he said.
The next meeting of the committee to form a new Vashon community council will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17 at The Land Trust Building.