Small districts make big problems | Editorial

Island County Cemetery District 1 is just the latest example of how small taxing districts can have big problems that involve money, personalities and the future direction of a public entity.

The cemetery district, which runs Oak Harbor’s Maple Leaf Cemetery, caused a stir earlier this month when there long-time employees, including supervisor Michael Dougliss, were suspended without pay. One commissioner quit after an alleged minor physical altercation with Dougliss, while the other two, citing personnel matters, would not explain their action, instead saying an “investigation” would be conducted by an unspecified party into unspecified issues.

For his part, Dougliss has a long record of successfully overseeing and making improvements to the cemetery, and the endorsement of two highly respected members of the community, funeral home owner Gary Wallin and Sunnyside Cemetery volunteer Dale Sherman. Sherman pointed out that while all three suspended Maple Leaf Cemetery employees are related, it’s not uncommon for particular families to spend generations tending a cemetery. The Shermans have been leaders in Coupeville’s Sunnyside Cemetery upkeep for many decades.

Such disputes are not only unfortunate, they can be costly. If an attorney is brought in by Maple Leaf’s two remaining elected commissioners, for example, its $25,000 in annual tax revenue could be devoured in a hurry. And there is always the threat of a lawsuit to make matters even more financially scary.

Longtime islanders will recall many similar disputes involving small taxing districts, including Diking District 1 on North Whidbey, Diking District 4 on South Whidbey, and various water districts. Sometimes elected officials run into trouble because they’re not properly informed of the state open meetings and open records acts; other times conflicting personalities take a toll on the public purse.

In all cases, the elected people involved in the dispute should step back and coolly assess the situation and fully explain the issues to the public. No hiding behind erroneous interpretations of state law. Dougliss and the other suspended employees, for example, have a right to a public job performance review.

But the most important thing is to keep the public welfare foremost in mind, forget any personal hard feelings, and do the job for which you were elected with a minimum of conflict. Small taxing districts don’t need to be causing big problems.


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