Island County commissioners will hold a closed door executive session today in Coupeville to discuss the city of Langley’s condemnation lawsuit on the county fairgrounds.
No announcements are expected immediately following the meeting, commission staff said.
Some community members had hoped commissioners would publicly address the controversies surrounding the Langley lawsuit and fair officials, especially after a statement by Commissioner Mike Shelton earlier this month that commissioners will make “a full disclosure” about ongoing fair issues at the Feb. 21 meeting.
The organizers of the Island County Fair have been engaged in an ongoing dispute with Langley that started more than a year ago with a request by the city for an easement across fair property.
The controversy has since grown to include the fair association’s involvement in a questionable land sale, handling of money within the fair organization and public access to fair records.
Commissioners will meet with a representative of the county prosecutor’s office and hold an executive session at
4 p.m. today.
A number of Langley residents have criticized the fair board in recent months for rejecting the city’s request for an easement across the publicly owned fairgrounds and asked the commissioners to step in.
The city of Langley wants to build a 22-foot wide connector road between Al Anderson and Langley roads. City officials said the road is needed for future development on the town’s south end, as well as to help ease traffic coming from a 53-home housing development called the Highlands.
The Island County Fair Association and the fair board have opposed the road mainly due to concerns about losing space for the campgrounds on the fair property. Construction begin for the Highlands is slated to begin next month.
After failed negotiation attempts, the city filed a condemnation suit against the county in October, which has been the owner of the fairgrounds since 1962. County commissioners have said they will not let Langley build the road across the fairgrounds without the green light from fair officials.
The fair association was granted intervener status in the court case and recently rejected another offer by the city to negotiate and settle the easement issue out of court.
In recent weeks, some have asked county commissioners to take a more active role in resolving the dispute.
Alan Whitman of Langley wrote an open letter to the commissioners calling for the replacement of fair officials.
“The ridiculous, illogical and stubborn way that they have blocked a project with a common public good is reason enough,” he wrote.
Whitman said he heard back from only one commissioner.
“The only commissioner who e-mailed me back was John Dean. He did so the same day and expressed concerns about the issues,” he said.
Whitman said fair officials should think of the common good and cease their opposition to the new road.
“I have subsequently been appalled at how intransigent the fair board and association have been. It never seemed like a logical response or one that was in the best interests of the people of Island County or of the fair,” Whitman said.
“My perception, an outsider’s, was that the board and association were flexing their muscles because they could, not because doing so would benefit the fair. None of the answers that they have given in defense of their stance has been convincing,” he said.
Craig Cyr, a Langley resident who has written extensively about the troubles surrounding the fair on the Langley Community Forum Website, has also called for more county oversight of fair officials.
“I’m not against the fair — lest there be any doubt. I like the fair, my kids like the fair, my friends like the fair. But it has to be run in a legal, accountable, responsible, responsive, transparent way. And there appears to be ample evidence that it isn’t on all counts,” he said.
Fair officials have also been actively rallying supporters in the hopes that some will lobby county commissioners.
Fair association officials wrote and circulated a letter last weekend that begged recipients to write to the commissioners in support of the fair association.
The letter addressed the road easement, the association’s land sale and the subsequent battle over public records. The letter also criticized ongoing newspaper coverage on fair issues, which it claimed included “lies and misinformation.”
The fair board is distancing itself from the letter said Dan Ollis, fair board chairman.
“The fair board doesn’t want its name attached to the letter,” he said.
Ollis expects a discussion about the letter in the next board meeting.
Ollis added that the fair board is holding on to its “no road position” despite the latest adjustments to the engineering plans that addressed most of the fair’s concerns.
“I think the fair loses no matter what. If we go to court or not,” Ollis said.
One person who received the call for support from the fair was Deborah Holbert. She was a longtime fair supporter until she resigned from the fair association in 2003 over dispute within the fair association about public access.
She said she was surprised to receive the note.
Holbert said during the years 2002 and 2003, Commissioners Mike Shelton and Mac McDowell were informed of problems at the Island County Fair.
“This is a matter of public record,” she said.
Holbert said they refused to intervene at that time.
“For them to act as if they didn’t know what is going on is hypocrisy. Not only were they aware of the problems but they have since taken action to allow them to continue by removing the county treasurers oversight authority.”
She said in past controversies those who raised concerns were labeled the “troublemakers.”
“As one of those who raised these original concerns, I can’t help but ask now that the ‘troublemakers’ have all left the association why are the problems still there, bigger than ever?” she asked.
“The letter that I received from the fair association is the type of tactic I would expect from those in charge. It is designed to inflame the masses without providing enough background information to be useful. The only thing that surprises me about it is that it does not use the same old ‘then we’ll have to close the fair down’ threat that is their stock in trade,” Holbert said.
Langley officials said they were hopeful about the commissioners’ meeting.
City Administrator Walt Blackford said, “The city feels gratified that the commissioners are focusing on the road issue and asserting the authority that we thought they had from the beginning.”
Langley Mayor Neil Colburn hopes the issue will move forward.
“While we aggressively pursue our court case, we are open to negotiations with the county,” Colburn said.