Republican Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson has once again pulled the carpet out from under her Democratic colleagues with a surprise proposal during the board’s regular meeting earlier this month.
Without any prior discussion with commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola, both of whom are running for re-election this fall, Emerson announced May 21 that she believes the board was having some trouble with executive session rules and wanted their support in seeking legal advice.
Reading aloud from a letter she drafted to Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, Emerson strongly suggested that the board may have recently run afoul of closed-door meeting rules and could use a refresher on the state statutes.
“Having been involved in a number of these privileged meetings now, it is quite clear to me that accidentally crossing the lines of propriety can happen all too easily,” Emerson wrote to Banks. “I’m not certain of support from the anyone else on the board, but I feel it would be a great benefit if you or your deputy could provide a short workshop for us on the legalities of calling and conducting these types of meetings.”
The issue sparked immediate and spirited debate. Board Chairwoman Price Johnson objected to the unexpected proposal, saying that she wanted the courtesy of being able to review what she was being asked to support and discuss it at an informal Wednesday work session before having to make a decision.
“You’ve done this a number of times now,” she said. “It’s not the topic, it’s the process that you are not following.”
Last month, Emerson announced in similar fashion at a Monday meeting that she wanted to use advisory ballots as a means of gauging public support for property assessments or fees prior to their consideration by the commissioners.
She wanted to start with a measure this August for voters to weigh in on the Conservation Futures Fund, a property tax used for land conservation throughout Island County.
Neither proposal saw support from her fellow commissioners.
Price Johnson said she was not unwilling to discuss this matter further and agreed to schedule a time to do so. She also said she would likely agree to a legal request by Emerson if she has questions about executive sessions.
“There is no need to go through these gymnastics,” Price Johnson said.
Homola said if a proposal is going to be brought forward on a Monday it should be done as a staff item so the board has time to read it first. She also said the protocol for seeking legal advice is to do so through the board’s chair person.
While she said she has personally found that frustrating in the past, saying she believes they should all have access to legal assistance, that is the current procedure and it should be followed.
Finally, Homola said she sensed the board was being accused of doing “something sneaky or illegal” in a recent executive session concerning the performance of an employee, which she called an awkward situation. She said she found that “pretty astonishing” since Emerson is the most secretive commissioner of all.
Homola charged her with not following email procedure by routing email through staff, covering her computer screen to hide it from view and not sharing or being unclear about her calendar items with the rest of the board.
Emerson responded by saying she doesn’t go out of her way to try and find out what her colleagues are doing so she can “try to be obstructive as you have done with me as long as I’ve been in office.”
In a later interview, Emerson said she proposed the matter on a Monday because she felt it was a “no brainer.” However, she also admitted that her sudden proposals are a new tactic she’s employed to further her agenda.
Since she took office, she said she’s tried to adhere to more conventional procedures but her ideas never got any traction. The end result was that they would be discussed “collaboratively” only to die in a Wednesday work session.
“At least this way, it gets a little further out there and people see I’m trying to make progress,” Emerson said.