Residents could lose voice if community councils fold
January 18, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
King County residents called on leaders last week to preserve community councils in rural and unincorporated neighborhoods, despite directions from the County Council to slash dollars for the groups.
Residents from the Puget Sound shoreline to rural areas near Issaquah operate unincorporated area councils to conduct neighborhood programs and foster citizen participation.
The councils also act as liaisons for unincorporated area residents to the county government based in Seattle. The county is home to 1.9 million people, including 340,000 residents in unincorporated areas.
But County Council members winnowed the budget for the unincorporated area councils from about $330,000 to $50,000 late last year, as the county faced a $60 million budget gap.
The council also directed staffers to craft a plan to consolidate the groups into a single unincorporated area commission. Staffers must send the plan to the council by April 15.
In addition, the budget funds staff positions related to the unincorporated area councils — community service representatives Marissa Alegria and Bong Santo Domingo — through February.
The directive, or proviso, has prompted protests from rural residents and members of the unincorporated area councils.
The changes tucked inside the 119-page county budget document also surprised Lauren Smith, unincorporated areas adviser to County Executive Dow Constantine, and unincorporated-area leaders.
“We can’t do the work until we talk to all of you, because that was part of the budget proviso,” Smith said during a Jan. 13 meeting at the King County Library System Service Center in Issaquah.
The meeting brought together representatives from the half dozen unincorporated area councils — citizen groups elected by residents in regions as disparate as Vashon Island and rural Maple Valley.
The group includes the Four Creeks Unincorporated Area Council near Issaquah. The area encompasses 14,000 residents in Maple Hills, May Valley, Mirrormont and other communities between Issaquah and Renton.
‘Hey, we’re all different’
Peter Eberle, Four Creeks Unincorporated Area Council president, said the councils reflect the cultural and geographic characteristics of each region.
“Many of the current UACs are made up of citizen participants who are proactive in terms of county government,” he said. “It would be a great loss as a county to lose the participation of these dedicated people, the people that are in this room.”
Smith said staffers had received similar feedback from community leaders and residents in rural and unincorporated areas.
“Another thing the county has heard a lot from unincorporated areas is, ‘Hey, we’re all different. Don’t treat us the same,’” she said. “Vashon is different from Upper Bear Creek, which is very different from Greater Maple Valley.”
The unincorporated area councils face other challenges, too.
The entire Vashon-Maury Island Community Council resigned in August amid a dispute related to public disclosure rules. The latest members could decide to break the formal relationship between the Vashon Island group and the county.
The episode has caused leaders on the councils and in the county to question if the groups should exists as nonprofit organizations rather than offshoots of county government.
The participants at the Issaquah meeting called for a meeting of the full County Council and unincorporated area representatives to discuss possible solutions.
Reagan Dunn, the only unincorporated area resident on the nine-member County Council, said the unincorporated area councils act as a key resource to residents in the neighborhoods outside the 39 cities.
“If you live inside a city, you have a city council and a mayor and a city administrator and city staff to go to, and then above that, the county,” he said. “If you’re in unincorporated King County — like in my district, I have 220,000 residents; 100,000 of them are in unincorporated King County — you have me and you have Dow. That’s it.”
Dunn said the unincorporated area councils should remain in place, as long as county staffers can set some guidelines for insurance and public disclosure requests — potential problem areas for the groups.
Uncertain future for councils
The county councilman voted against the 2011 county budget in part, he said, due to the cuts to the unincorporated area councils.
“It sounds like this unincorporated area commission is dead on arrival,” he added.
Dunn represents rural King County near Issaquah, plus Maple Valley, Newcastle and areas inside Bellevue and Renton city limits.
Carl Sells, Vashon-Maury Island Community Council acting president, said although the island has unique needs, unincorporated residents share similar concerns across the county.
“Every road and pothole in our community belongs to the county, and for major repairs, equipment and materials must be ferried to the island,” he said. “Our police, fire and emergency medical services are all from the county and stand alone. Assistance is too far away to help our locally staffed facilities.”
Greater Maple Valley Area Council President Steve Heister said the creation of a countywide commission based in Seattle could mean scant attention for local concerns.
“My fear is, a rural commission is not going to be effective and it won’t have local representation,” he said. “It won’t be out there meeting in the community, in the rural areas, once a month as the citizen UACs do.”
West Hill Community Council President Paul Berry said the council had insulted the unincorporated area councils by calling for the groups to be folded into a single organization.
West Hill is a neighborhood wedged against Lake Washington, Renton, Seattle and Tukwila.
“Whatever you’re talking about in terms of a modified structure, it has to be locally based,” Berry said. “My people aren’t going to go get involved in a countywide operation. They’re not going to spend more resources and time fighting to just be able to do what we barely can get people to do anyway.”
Tom Carpenter, a former Four Creeks Unincorporated Area Council president, offered a suggestion to county staffers: “Don’t try to come up with a formula for the UACs,” he said.
About the unincorporated area councils
King County and the unincorporated area councils formalized a relationship after then-County Executive Gary Locke enacted the Citizen Participation Initiative in December 1994.
Then, about one-third of the county population — 500,000 people — resided in unincorporated areas. The number has since declined to 340,000 due to annexations and incorporations.
Locke signed the measure to grant unincorporated area residents a larger say in issues related to growth and police protection.
In the years since, the King County Council has recognized a half dozen unincorporated area councils throughout the region. The groups vary in geography and population.
- Four Creeks Unincorporated Area Council — The rural group serves about 14,000 people in rural neighborhoods from Issaquah to Renton.
- Greater Maple Valley Area Council — The council represents the largest geographic area, including Hobart, and about 15,000 residents.
- North Highline Unincorporated Area Council — The urban unincorporated area includes about 30,000 people in White Center and other neighborhoods between Burien and Seattle.
- Upper Bear Creek Community Council — The group serves about 22,000 residents from Woodinville city limits to the Snohomish County line.
- Vashon-Maury Island Community Council — The council has served the island community since 1933 and gained recognition from the county in 1996. The group represents about 10,000 islanders.
- West Hill Community Council — The urban unincorporated area council serves about 13,000 residents along Lake Washington between Renton and Seattle.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.