Governments combine for more punch

After months of informal lunchbox meetings to discuss goals, principles and priorities, a coalition of local government entities is only a few steps away from becoming an official part of Island County government, complete with its own by-laws and articles of association.

However, elected officials have argued throughout the council’s proceedings that they don’t intend to create yet another time-and-money consuming layer of government bureaucracy; instead, they want action and cooperation between already existing agencies.

The Island County Council of Governments is a seven-member advisory board that will tackle issues of economic development throughout the entire county, with a focus on long-term cooperation between the county and incorporated cities. Comprising the council are mayors from the cities of Langley, Oak Harbor and Coupeville, as well as a representative from the county’s port districts and all three members of the Board of Island County Commissioners.

Largely fashioned on Skagit County’s successful COG, Island County’s COG has been meeting informally for the past year or so, in an effort to hammer out the details of what the council should look like and what should be its function. Last Wednesday, representatives agreed to take a draft of COG by-laws and articles of incorporation to their respective bodies for approval.

Though there are still a few details to be worked out — specifically, what type of budget the council will operate with, if any — officials say they expect to be up and running as an organization sometime in October.

The official purpose of the COG, as stated in its draft Articles of Association, will be “the study of regional and governmental problems of mutual interest and concern.” According to Island County Board of Commissioners Chair Mike Shelton, the council should serve the whole of Island County as a region and not simply as another body administering to county government.

“There ought to be a commonality of interests,” Shelton said Wednesday. “I hope we’re all interested in pulling in the same direction for Island County.”

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said she envisions the COG functioning largely as an advisory board that makes recommendations to the board of commissioners on how to distribute Rural Counties funding, which this year totals about $400,000.

Island County this year was granted rural status by the legislature, which qualifies it for additional sales tax funding earmarked for the development of economic infrastructure.

Shelton said one of the benefits of the council with regards to such funding is that it can “support projects from a county-wide perspective,” in that representatives from different jurisdictions throughout the county will take part in all decisions regardless of locale.

However, a number of members have expressed concern about the council becoming simply another study-conducting, revenue-chomping government agency, especially at a time when government revenues are dwindling due to the economy and such tax-limitation initiatives As I-695 and I-737. Many officials have interpreted the success of such citizen’s initiatives as a call for a reduction in the perceived bloat and expense of government bureaucracies.

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said she supports the idea of the council taking a look at issues of mutual concern, though she doesn’t want COG “to be yet another arm of government.”

Commissioner Mac McDowell also warned against the council morphing into redundancy. “Right now is the wrong time to set up another layer of government,” McDowell said.

Shelton said he doesn’t perceive the council as creating another layer of government. “It’s a cooperative venture amongst the cities and the county,” Shelton said.

The proceedings Wednesday were delayed a bit by a debate over exactly how a COG budget would be constituted should members decide to create one. The main contention revolved around the idea of assessments to members, which the by-laws state cannot be levied without a unanimous vote by every member of the council. Beyond the question of whether assessments were desirable, Commissioner McDowell objected to the idea of one person being able to vote down COG’s budget.

“I don’t think anything unanimous is good in government,” McDowell said. “You can’t have one person able to say ‘no.’”

Shelton pointed out that the clause for a unanimous vote originally was inserted into the by-laws for the benefit of a concern expressed by McDowell at an earlier meeting. In the end, the council decided to leave the voting requirement in the draft but to discuss it further at a later date.

Although members agreed that the creation of a budget may be necessary in order to process and distribute any potential grant funds, most appeared to reject the concept of assessing fees to members, as this belied the idea of COG not becoming yet another “layer” of government.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be without a budget,” Shelton said. “I am saying it’s going to be without assessments.”

In the end, members agreed to move forward with approval of COG’s draft by-laws, and to work out any kinks in the process.

“This does not obligate us to anything right now,” Cohen said in moving to have the articles of association approved by the members’ respective agencies. “It simply identifies a process.

“I’d like to see us move ahead with this,” Cohen said. “I believe in the Council of Government.”

Langley Mayor Lloyd Furman said he agreed with the idea of further hashing out the details of how the COG will function. “I think it’s beneficial for us to talk,” Furman said.

Council of Government members Commissioner Bill Thorn and Coupeville Port Commissioner Ed Van Patten were absent from Wednesday’s meeting.

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