Appointment to Trust Board causes controversy, again

The Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve has been riled in controversy

The unique board that oversees the management of a unique national reserve on Whidbey Island will meet next week with a full board for the first time in months.

The Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve has been riled in controversy for months as long term members quit, but the two newest members are expected to be at the regular meeting Tuesday.

Getting to a full board hasn’t been without controversy, although some stakeholders are hopeful that the new members — who come with historical knowledge of trust board operations — will help soothe concerns.

Earlier this month, Island County Commissioner Melanie Bacon’s decision to appoint former Reserve manager Kristen Griffen irked many people, including the current Reserve manager, Marie Shimada, who felt it was a political move. Shimada is challenging Bacon in this year’s election.

Last week, Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes’ decision to overlook a council member and instead recommend the appointment of a non-elected resident, Lynda Austin, to the Trust Board caused tension during the meeting. Austin, a 27-year resident of the Reserve, worked as the office manager and education coordinator at the Reserve and was the primary organizer of the first Ebey’s Forever Conference. She has also served on the Friends of Ebey’s Board.

The Trust Board manages Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, which encompasses much of Central Whidbey and was established in 1978 to protect the historical record of Puget Sound exploration, settlement and agriculture from the 19th century to the present.Members of the Trust Board are appointed by the four partners of the Reserve, which are Island County, the town of Coupeville, Washington State Parks and the National Park Service.

At the town council meeting, Hughes acknowledged the drama on the Trust Board and suggested that current members are frustrated by a lack of “onboarding” or answers to their questions. She said a past Reserve manager was successful in hosting events to get the community involved but that hasn’t happened in recent years.

Hughes bemoaned the lack of historical knowledge on the board.

“It’s constantly new people and a lot of new people who haven’t necessarily lived in the Reserve for a long time,” she said, “which is fine … but you can’t have an entire Trust Board of that.”

Councilmember Pat Powell, also a longtime resident of the Reserve, asked to be appointed to the board earlier this year and claims it is “highly unusual” for a council member to be passed over. She said in her 10 and a half years on the council, it’s always been the policy for council members to be offered assignments on the five main committees; she has no other committee assignment.

“We have never advertised for a vacancy if a council member wanted to be on there,” she said during the meeting last week. “Never.”

Hughes said she stopped asking council if they wanted to be appointed to the Trust Board over the last four years because she did it during her first four years and nobody wanted to be on it. She said she advertised the position before Powell expressed interest.

Powell said she hadn’t applied in the past because the former Reserve manager “highly disliked” her. When Hughes announced the opening at the May meeting, Powell immediately said she was interested. Powell said it was odd when the mayor remarked that she would “have to think about it,” even though the appointment is the council’s decision.

Powell read a statement about her concerns and the unusual nature of the application process. Powell, the former executive director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, said she has a passion for the Reserve and is highly qualified. Powell emphasized that she has nothing but respect for Austin, who is also qualified.

“Even after I expressed my interest in the position, the mayor actively went out and sought more applications, which I did hear from community members,” she said.

Councilmember Rick Walti interrupted Powell, saying she should talk about her qualifications instead of “a bunch of hearsay kind of things.” He accused her of getting “carried away on other stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with this issue.”

Powell thanked him for his comment and continued with her statement. She described her lengthy experience working to preserve the Reserve. She suggested that the heart of the controversy on the Trust Board was tension between it and the Friends of Ebey’s Reserve, the fundraising arm of the organization.

“As far as the mayor’s nomination tonight, I have to ask myself, ‘What’s really going on?’ and what has caused the mayor to ignore 30 years of town practice?” she asked rhetorically, suggesting that the council defer a decision until later.

The board, however, voted to appoint Austin. All four of the council members present, including Powell, approved the motion.