Trust Board appointment stirs political dispute

Depending on who you ask, political machination or paranoia is at the heart of recent turmoil on a unique board of volunteers appointed by four government partners that are supposed to cooperatively manage Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

Island County Commissioner Melanie Bacon’s decision to appoint Kristen Griffen to the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing drew a lot of reaction in the Central Whidbey community. Griffen is the former Reserve manager and some people felt she wasn’t the right person, especially at a time when the board itself is struggling with its own problems which led to some members, including several long-standing volunteers, to quit over the last year.

The disagreement rose to a full-blown controversy, however, when the current manager of the Reserve, Marie Shimada, wrote an email to the other two commissioners, calling Griffen a divisive figure and asking them not to agree to the appointment.

It is certainly unusual — and some say inappropriate — for an employee of a board to publicly try to influence its makeup, but the fact that Shimada is running against Bacon for commissioner adds another level of intrigue to the issue.

In fact, Shimada claims that Bacon appointed Griffen as political payback for running against her. Both women are Democrats; two Republican candidates are also running for the position in the primary election.

“I think it’s political retribution from my opponent that is unfolding in my workplace,” she said.

Moreover, Shimada said it’s no coincidence that Mary Engle lost her job as planning director after she endorsed Shimada for commissioner. The commissioners, however, deny this and point out that Engle wasn’t fired, but given a different position with the same pay. Commissioner Janet St. Clair said there is “no intersection” between election year politics and Engle’s new job.

At a dramatic Trust Board meeting last week, Shimada said she wanted the board to consider her complaints against Griffen and two others at a follow-up meeting. She went as far as to say that she wanted a “no contact order” against Griffen, although she clarified that she didn’t mean a court order.

A few days later, Shimada sent an email to the Trust Board withdrawing her complaints.

Bacon said she is bewildered by the controversy and denied any political maneuvering. She said she feels Griffen’s experience, knowledge and passion for the Reserve made her an ideal candidate and someone who can help the Trust Board get through a tough patch. Bacon said it has been a few years years since Griffen was the Reserve manager, which she felt is enough time that it shouldn’t be a problem for her to serve on the board.

In addition, Bacon pointed out that Griffen was the only qualified person to apply for the job. Another woman applied, but she didn’t qualify because she lives within the town of Coupeville, plus she turned in her application on the day of a workshop in which the commissioners had already agreed to place Griffen on the regular meeting agenda for appointment.

Griffen said she was completely surprised by Shimada’s reaction to her appointment and is unaware of any bad blood between them. She was actually hired to help Shimada transition to the job when she first started.

Griffen was hired as the Reserve manager 2013 and retired in 2021. She said she believes deeply in the mission of the Reserve and volunteered as a board member on the Friends of Ebey’s, the fundraising arm of the Trust Board. She said she largely stayed out of Trust Board business since retiring in order to heal from breast cancer.

Griffen said her only agenda is for the Trust Board to succeed.

“It’s a remarkable model of citizens and government working together,” she said.

Griffen said she didn’t plan on discussing the controversy over the appointment, or what she called false allegation, at her first meeting, but then Shimada brought it up.

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. Coupeville appoints three people who live in town while the county appoints four people who live in unincorporated areas, with one being an at-large position. In addition, an employee of State Parks and employee of National Parks are members.

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.

Shimada was hired as the Reserve manager in 2022. Over the last nine months, the Trust Board has suffered from dysfunction and “borderline toxicity” between some board members and shareholders, leading to the resignations, according to Jeff Sturm, the current Trust Board chair.

“There is a lot of mistrust, a lot of misinformation out there,” he said.

Several people associated with the Trust Board opined that the dysfunction revolves around the question of control. Some people in the community are concerned about losing local control of the board and feel that there’s a move toward ceding authority to the National Park Service.

Sturm said the board may have been exploring different options, but they are just discussions. He also said there is a sense of distrust from some in the Central Whidbey community toward Trust Board members who are newer to the community.

“Our motives are in question if we’re not fourth or fifth generation residents,” he said.

Sturm said he was concerned when he heard that Griffen was being considered for the job. He said several people in the county brought to his attention that she had “baggage” as the former Reserve manager. He said a lot of people in the community have strong emotions about Griffen, just as they do about Shimada.

Both Sturm and Shimada took the extraordinary step of writing emails to the commissioners asking them not to appoint Griffen; Sturm wrote to all three commissioners while Shimada just wrote to two. Both of them signed the letters with their Trust Board positions, without making it clear that they were only representing themselves.

“Kristen’s actions in her current role as board member for Friends of Ebey’s have been intentionally divisive, lacking in consideration of the public interest, and her actions towards current members have been described in public meetings as ‘assault,’” Shimada wrote.

Sturm wrote that he felt the Trust Board should “right its ship” before bringing a new person on, especially someone who is potentially divisive. He wrote an email asking the commissioners not to appoint Griffen or anyone for 30 days. In an interview, he said it seemed “fishy” that there was a rush to appoint Griffen.

Pat Powell, a member of the Coupeville Town Council, wrote an email to Bacon, urging her not to appoint Griffen. Powell is the former director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust.

“It is absolutely agreed by experts in the human resources field that a former manager/director that works for an all volunteer board should never be put on that volunteer board after they leave their position,” she wrote.

At the commissioner May 15 workshop, Bacon spoke briefly about why she felt Griffen would be a good addition to the board. Commissioner Jill Johnson explained that the board’s policy is to accept each commissioner’s appointments to boards; she said she might have a problem if the person was from outside the Reserve, but that’s not the case with Griffen.

Johnson questioned the appropriateness of Shimada’s email. When she was the director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, she would never weigh in on who should be on the board, she said.

“I kind of wanted to speak to the fact that it’s a little concerning to me that an employee thinks they get to pick their boss,” she said, adding that there’s a need for “personal development” on the part of the Reserve manager.

Trust Board members said they plan on holding an executive session to discuss the performance of a public employee at a meeting next week.