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Citizen's group focuses on Coupeville

About a year ago, a group of frustrated neighbors in Coupeville began meeting informally to discuss what was upsetting them about their town government.

The very loose-knit group ended up researching and sharing information on a wide range of issues, starting up the first Web site dedicated to town issues, and helping to inspire candidates to run in what has become the most contested and interesting election in decades.

The group — which is so informal participants hesitate to call it a group — is called Friends of Coupeville United for Solutions, or just FOCUS. The Web site is www.coupeville.us.

Rob Harbour, the former manager of Ebey’s Landing, started the meetings in his living room after speaking to his neighbors and realizing that there was discontentment about the direction of town government. Many of the people had long been involved in town issues, but felt marginalized by elected officials.

“I think they felt a little frustrated because we didn’t have a forum for a good civil discourse that’s two way,” Harbour said, adding that encouraging civility was a key topic for the group.

David Medley, a participant in the group and creator of the Web site, said the neighbors discovered they had a lot of similar concerns, but there was definitely healthy disagreement among those who came to meetings.

“We aren’t in lockstep, but we have a lot of common interests and the same love of Coupeville and the island,” Medley said. He added that he wanted to dispel rumors that the group has a radical ideological agenda or that it’s an offshoot of other groups, such as the controversial Oh-Oh organization.

Mayor Nancy Conard, on the other hand, said she doesn’t understand where the sense of frustration comes from or why a small group of people feels there’s a need for a such a group. She said there’s plenty of opportunity for people to get involved and to express their opinions to her and other elected officials.

“It seems like a shame to start a new group to talk about town issues among a small number of people instead of just speaking directly with the decision makers,” she said.

Conard pointed out that the group hasn’t spurred any new people to get involved. She said that FOCUS members started attending council meetings more regularly in the beginning of the year, but that involvement has petered out.

As for civility, Conard said she hasn’t seen a change. “There are a couple people in the community who are less civil than others,” she said.

FOCUS participants developed a list of issues, including a historic preservation plan, the shoreline master program, water, trees, information flow, low-impact development, small-town character, the night sky, and parks and public facilities master plans.

Harbour said a draft historic preservation plan, for example, sat on a shelf for four years. The town started moving forward with the plan again after FOCUS participants started asking about it and the elections approached, he said.

Individuals or small groups volunteered to research an issue and report back to the other participants.

“I just loved watching the process of people going from frustration to researching, learning and sharing their ideas,” Harbour said. “People’s vocabulary changed. People got educated.”

Elections were another important issue. After all, the entire town council was up for election in 2003, but all of the candidates ran uncontested.

Medley also said there was a general sense that Mayor Conard has too much sway in the small town. All but one of the current council members were originally appointed by her; she appoints members of the planning commission, parks board and other committees.

“I can’t remember the last time anyone voted in dissent on council...” Medley said. “It’s time for a change, time for new blood in there, time for a new vision.”

The FOCUS group didn’t put forward or endorse any candidates. It wasn’t really involved in the election, especially since meetings have been put on hold in the last couple of months — and perhaps permanently. But both Harbour and Medley said that the FOCUS experience encouraged people to seek public office. All the candidates challenging incumbents, including mayoral candidate Gordon Burton, took part in FOCUS discussions to some degree.

“The whole election thing got started on principle,” Harbour said. “The principle that there should be no uncontested races.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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