Island County commissioners retreat, go different directions
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
February 14, 2011 · Updated 8:51 AM
Island County commissioners were unable to find much in the way of common ground during a four-hour retreat in their hearing room Wednesday, but they definitely got to know each other better.
They disagreed on issues ranging from goals to taxes to answering machine messages. The three women remained civil, but commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola clearly became frustrated with Commissioner Kelly Emerson, the newest member and sole Republican on the board.
“It’s not appropriate to punt the job to the two of us because you don’t want to make decisions,” Homola said.
Indeed, Emerson appeared to relish her role as the naysayer on the board and criticized ideas proposed by other commissioners. Her colleagues complained about her refusal to propose solutions or work together to fix perceived problems, but Emerson said she’s new and can’t yet be specific about what she wants.
“Rest assured, a little more time on the job and I’ll give you more than you want to hear,” she said.
Ironically, Emerson, who campaigned as a Tea Party reformer of government, found herself in the unusual position of arguing for the status quo when it comes to reorganizing departments. She even asked the other commissioners to agree not to make any such structural changes for two years.
A proposal to reorganize or streamline several small departments was one of the top agenda items at the retreat, which was facilitated by consultant Paul Dziedzic. A committee of county officials had studied the issue for months and proposed placing three departments — central services, general services administration and facilities — under one umbrella with a new administrative services director overseeing them all.
The cost savings would be small, Human Resources Director Melanie Bacon said, but it would mean that the overworked staff members in the affected departments would have more time to dedicate to tasks besides red-tape, administrative-type work.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to pay three department heads to do administrative work across three departments when they should be providing services to the public,” Price Johnson said.
Under the proposed model, the recently retired central services director would be replaced by an information technology lead who would concentrate on the computer systems, not overseeing a department that includes a mailroom.
Emerson, however, said she was adamantly against making any “major structural changes” to departments while the county is on shaky financial ground. She said she doubted that the changes to the departments would be budget neutral, but would just add to bureaucracy and end up being costly, “just like national health care.”
“Instead of continuing to focus on improvements
others can make, I think we should focus on improvements we can make,” Emerson said, adding that commissioners take up a lot of staff time with repetitive and redundant meetings.
Both Homola and Price Johnson noted that the commissioners already have streamlined their meetings and asked her where the redundancies were and how they could make the meetings better. But again, Emerson said she’s too new to discuss specifics yet.
Homola also said she still had questions about the proposed reorganization, but she agreed that the proposal should move forward.
In a related matter, the reorganization committee and Budget Director Elaine Marlow urged the commissioners to create a new “natural resources department” within the health department to include most of the programs that will be funded by the new clean water utility tax. Marlow explained that the department was needed for financial accountability and to avoid an overhead fee that would be charged if the programs didn’t have their own department.
Emerson was opposed, noting that she was a critic of the clean water utility. She asked a number of times, half-jokingly, if the clean water funds could be given back to the taxpayers.
Website changes discussed
The three commissioners did seem to agree on the concept of improving the county’s website. They were in favor of allowing people to pay for permits, dog tags and possibly even taxes online.
Homola repeated her long-time concern about improving communication with the public through more press releases and news stories on the website, including accomplishments, successes and what the commissioners are doing.
Emerson, however, said that “smacked of propaganda” and that she would rather communicate with citizens on her own and let the newspaper do the rest.
The differences among the commissioners were again highlighted during a final discussion of priorities and goals. Homola, for example, read a long list, with such ideas as stimulating jobs, adopting an affordable housing, fixing water pipes in the jail and creating a no-idling policy, while her colleagues were more circumspect.
But they ended on a note of consensus, with the commissioners all speaking in favor of performance audits as a way of increasing efficiency in government. The devil, of course, may be in the details.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.