The night of the county commissioners
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
August 21, 2011 · Updated 6:19 AM
Ten members of the community attended an unusual nighttime hearing that Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson insisted on holding in order to better comply with county code and allow more members of the public to attend.
The single issue on the agenda, however, quickly passed without any controversy or naysaying, though the commissioners got into a lively debate afterwards about the wisdom of night meetings.
Emerson, the sole Republican on the three-member board of commissioners, has been pushing a county code which states public hearings should be held at night on the fourth Monday of each month “when possible,” though past commissioners have traditionally held regular meetings during the day. She met resistance from the other two commissioners, who feel it’s a good idea to only hold night meetings on issues of high public interest as the county doesn’t have the staffing or the funds to hold them every month.
Emerson and Commissioner Angie Homola came to a compromise about the night meeting last month during a meeting when Commissioner Helen Price Johnson was absent. They decided to hold the meeting at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15, even though it’s not the fourth Monday.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown attended the meeting to promote the ordinance, which reclassifies some animal control violations — such as off-leash dog or barking dog violations — as civil violations instead of crimes. He pointed out that under the current code, someone who lets his dog off the leash and misses a court date could end up in jail, which he said isn’t a good use of tax dollars.
“It will promote greater fairness to the defendant, would be less of a burden to law enforcement and be more of a proportional punishment,” the sheriff said, supporting the change.
Brown also pointed out that animal abuse or abandonment would still be a crime, as would cases in which a dog injures a person. A defendant with three or more animal control violations in a five-year period can also be charged with a crime.
Three members of the public spoke during the comment period. Oak Harbor resident Madeline Rose expressed concerns about the number of abandoned pets on the island and asked how to get “more meat into this ordinance.” South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose asked about the economic costs and Central Whidbey resident Gary Wray said enforcement of the animal control ordinance isn’t being enforced currently.
“It’s not being done now, so you might as well make the law match what is being done,” he said.
The commissioners unanimously approved the ordinance.
Afterward, Emerson again argued that the commissioners should start holding all public hearings at night on the fourth Monday of each month. She said she polled residents through her newsletter and found that 80 percent believe that the night meetings can be held without any additional cost and 73 percent said they should be scheduled each month.
“There are people in here who voted for you two,” Emerson said to her fellow commissioners, motioning to the crowd. “I think you owe it to them.”
In response, Homola read aloud from Emerson’s newsletter and claimed it was inaccurate. Contrary to Emerson’s claim, Homola said, the commissioners do have night meetings for issues of great public interest. She also pointed out how the board has “moved forward with government transparency” by posting agendas online, putting audio recordings online and now having video recordings of meetings online.
She said it would be great to have regular night meetings, but that the county can’t afford the added expense after all the draconian budget cuts. She said the night meetings should be reserved for issues of public importance or interest. She said Emerson was “tone deaf to reality.”
Price Johnson noted that a survey on a local newspaper website found that 90 percent of those polled didn’t think night meetings were worthwhile. Nonetheless, she said she’s also in favor of having night meetings for significant matters. But mostly, she said it’s really a non-issue.
“I don’t know why it’s gotten so much air play,” she said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.