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Where is Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson?
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. And throughout her term, she has been criticized for her work ethic, missed meetings, abstaining from votes and simply remaining silent.
In a brief phone interview Thursday, Emerson said she attends many regional meetings and serves on boards off-island, which keeps her from spending time in Coupeville. She added it was unfair to characterize her as not participating in her job.
Since Jan. 1, Emerson has missed at least seven regular meetings and work sessions according to meeting minutes. In comparison, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson has missed one regular meeting and one work session, and Commissioner Jill Johnson has missed one regular meeting. Emerson has attended a couple of meetings via speakerphone, and every meeting since Oct. 1 she has either been absent or attended via teleconferencing from Camano.
Using the teleconferencing technology seems to be an obstacle, however, and several times Emerson has complained of not being able to hear the meeting. The result is a lack of response to prompts to comment or vote, making it difficult for her to participate. In these situations, votes are simply taken without her unless a tie breaker is necessary, and the other board members are visibly frustrated.
Emerson said Thursday that she has complained about the technology for years, but did not say why she does not attend meetings in person instead.
Her fellow commissioners agree that her lack of participation in the process is putting a strain on the board and how they operate.
“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 vocally 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, Johnson said.
Johnson concedes that Emerson’s commute is longer — an hour and a half from Camano — but it shouldn’t keep her from regularly attending meetings in person.
“It’s two days out of a work week. You have to show up,” Johnson said.
During this year’s budget process, Emerson, while physically present, rarely commented or offered suggestions on many issues discussed. While she did find a win in paying off a county conservation futures loan, she ultimately voted against the budget. Emerson said she abstained from debate over budgetary decisions because she believed she would not be able to get support from either commissioner and didn’t want to waste taxpayer time.
Fellow Republican Johnson said Emerson’s is a voice that needs to be heard.
“I understand it’s 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.”
One negative result in Emerson’s absence is that it forces Johnson and Price Johnson to compromise further 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.”
Besides, said Johnson, Emerson was elected and has supporters who deserve representation.
“She’s gotta pull her seat up to the table,” Johnson said.
Emerson’s increased absence and lack of participation seems to come in the wake of her unseating as chair of the board in July.
In addition, Emerson has been embroiled in lawsuits against the county over an unissued building permit, one of which was filed as recently as 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. State law, RCW 36.32, which outlines the makeup and function of county commissions, does not specify job requirements either.