Emerson absences ‘strain’ Island County commission

Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson’s chair sits empty during a regular meeting of the board. Commissioners Jill Johnson, left, and Helen Price Johnson say Emerson’s frequent absences are a concern. - Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times
Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson’s chair sits empty during a regular meeting of the board. Commissioners Jill Johnson, left, and Helen Price Johnson say Emerson’s frequent absences are a concern.
— image credit: Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times

When the Island County Board of Commissioners approved a moratorium on recreational marijuana this week, Commissioner Kelly Emerson said she would make herself available by phone to vote on the controversial issue.

That phone call never came, and the action passed 2-0.

Emerson, who represents Camano Island, has been increasingly absent or non-participatory at public meetings in recent months. Throughout her term, she has been criticized for her work ethic, has missed meetings, abstained from votes and simply remained silent.

During a brief telephone interview Thursday, Emerson said she attends many regional meetings and serves on boards off island, which keeps her from spending time in Coupeville.

Emerson added she considers it to be unfair to characterize her as not fulfilling requirements of her job.

Since Jan. 1, Emerson has missed at least seven regular meetings and work sessions, according to meeting minutes.

In comparison, during that time, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson missed one regular meeting and one work session, and Commissioner Jill Johnson missed one regular meeting.

Emerson attended a couple meetings via speakerphone, and every meeting since Oct. 1 Emerson has either been absent or attended via teleconferencing from Camano Island.

Using the teleconferencing technology seems to be problematic, however. Several times Emerson has complained of not being able to hear the meeting. The result at times has been a lack of response to promptings for a comment or vote.

In those situations, votes are simply taken without her unless a tie breaker is necessary

The other commisioners are visibly frustrated.

Emerson said Thursday that she has complained about the technology for years, but didn’t say why she cannot attend meetings in person as a remedy.

Her fellow commissioners agree that Emerson’s lack of participation in the process is straining the board and how it operates.

“This form of government depends on all three being participants,” Price Johnson said. “It’s difficult when one member decides to disengage.”

“It’s unfortunate for the residents of Camano.”

Most recently, the vote on the recreational marijuana moratorium was key for Camano residents, many of whom opposed it during the public hearing.

Emerson’s views on rural issues like this one are key to ensuring the county moves in the right direction, said Jill Johnson, who serves as the board’s chairwoman.

Johnson concedes Emerson’s commute is longer — an hour and a half from Camano — but contends that shouldn’t keep her from regularly attending meetings in person.

“It’s two days out of a work week,” said Johnson. “You have to show up.”

During this year’s budget process, Emerson, while physically present, rarely commented or offered suggestions. While she did find a win in paying off one of the county’s conservation futures loan, she ultimately voted against the budget.

Emerson said she abstained from a debate over budgetary decisions because she believed she would not be able to gain support from either commissioner and didn’t want to waste taxpayers’ time.

Fellow Republican Johnson said Emerson has a voice that needs to be heard.

“I understand its frustrating,” Johnson said. “But the bigger issue is that I value her opinion. She represents a different thought process than I do. Without her participation, we’re not having a full view.”

Emerson was elected and has supporters who deserve representation, Johnson said.

“She’s gotta pull her seat up to the table.”

One result of Emerson’s absences is that it forces Johnson and Price Johnson to compromise more than they’d like in order to move actions forward.

“There are times I don’t want to have to compromise as far as I do,” Johnson said. “Helen and I care about the county, but we have ideological differences.”

Emerson’s absences and lack of participation in commissioner meetings seems to come in the wake of her removal as chairwoman of the board in July.

Emerson and her husband, Ken, have also been embroiled in lawsuits against Island County over an unissued building permit, the most recent filed by the couple on Nov. 4.

According to former clerk of the board Elaine Marlow, the county has not established specific job requirements for county commissioners, deferring to state law. RCW 36.32, which outlines the makeup and function of county commissions, but does not specify job requirements either.




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