Island County dog issue sparks a little night meeting debate
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
August 1, 2011 · Updated 8:17 AM
A benign proposal turned into a test of wills during an Island County commissioners meeting Monday, but ended in compromise.
The proposal in question would have set a public hearing at 10:20 a.m. on Aug. 15 for a change in the county’s code that would decriminalize certain animal control violations.
But Commissioner Kelly Emerson said the public hearing should be delayed until 6 p.m. on the fourth Monday of the month in order to comply with county code. The code she referred to states that “when possible, public hearings will be held on the fourth Monday meeting, beginning at 6 p.m.”
Emerson, a Republican, has been pushing the night-meeting issue with her Democratic colleagues in recent weeks, but there’s a difference of opinion on the board. Commissioner Angie Homola said night meetings may be in order when there’s issues of high public interest, but otherwise it’s too expensive for the cash-strapped county. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the county simply doesn’t have the money for night meetings.
Budget Director Elaine Marlow, who’s been the clerk of the board for 10 years, said the commissioners — including all-Republican boards — have traditionally held night meetings only when there’s an issue of great public interest on the agenda. Often those meetings are held in the area of the county where they’re most relevant.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson was absent from the meeting, so that meant Emerson couldn’t be out-voted. That’s why things got testy.
Emerson said the proposed ordinance does have a lot of interest in the public and there’s no reason certain meetings can’t be held at night on the fourth Monday.
Homola stressed that the code states the night meetings should occur “when possible.” She said it’s not possible to have night meetings every month because of the sheer cost.
Homola also claimed she and Price Johnson questioned Emerson at an earlier meeting on how to pay for the extra cost of evening meetings, but Emerson responded that she wouldn’t tell them unless they repealed the clean water utility tax.
“Bullying your way into evening meetings does not solve the problem,” Homola said.
But Emerson countered that Homola was misquoting her and “mixing and mingling” past conversations. In addition, she said she didn’t believe there would be an extra cost for holding night meetings since many departments do it all the time by adjusting schedules.
“I have heard your arguments over and over. I do not agree with them,” Emerson told her fellow commissioner.
Finally, Homola proposed that the agenda item could be set for a night meeting on Aug. 15, instead of the fourth Monday, since she didn’t want the sheriff and prosecutor to have to wait another month to settle the animal control issue. Emerson reluctantly agreed.
As a result, the commissioners will hold their regular morning meeting on Aug. 15 and then continue it until 6 p.m. to hear the single issue.
The proposed amendment to Island County code deals with violations of rules on dog licenses and leash requirements. The change would convert the violations from criminal misdemeanors to civil infractions that carry a $125 penalty.
Everyone seems to be in favor of the proposal. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said such violations should never have been considered criminal and can be handled more effectively as civil infractions. Criminal cases are expensive to prosecute and he simply doesn’t have enough deputy prosecutors to deal with such minor issues, although persistent offenders can still be charged with criminal offenses.
Plus, Banks pointed out that someone who misses a court date for a dog off-leash case could end up with an arrest warrant.
“Is that a wise use of our tax dollars?” he asked rhetorically.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.