Thoughts from an observer - Salish Current

Taking notes, in person, at local government meetings is rewarding and enriching both personally and for the community, report participants in the Observer Corps program of the League of Women Voters of The San Juans. The program fills a significant gap and supports vital local news coverage — but, notes its founder, the program is not a panacea. (Courtesy image)

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

In 2022 I started a pilot project: the League of Women Voters’ Observer Corps in San Juan County. 

League Observer Corps usually attend public meetings and keep a record to ensure that state open public meeting laws are followed, to have an outside presence at public meetings and to keep their local chapter aware of what is happening in local government. While some chapters make their notes available on their websites, the notes are mainly for internal use rather than public consumption.

My longstanding interest in starting an Observer Corps in San Juan County kicked into high gear when I attended the state League’s council meeting and heard the preliminary results on the Washington State League’s study on decline in local news and its impact on democracy and civic engagement. In San Juan County we are lucky to have print weeklies still, as well as online local news outlets, but staffing cuts have reduced coverage noticeably. Perhaps an Observer Corps could fill a bit of the gap.

I contacted the Journal of the San Juans to see if they would be interested in printing the notes. They agreed and the board of the LWVSJ gave me the go-ahead to run a pilot. I began to attend county council, Friday Harbor town council, Friday Harbor port commission, San Juan Island school board and Public Hospital District #1 meetings. I sought to keep the notes short, no longer than one page, leaving out routine business and focusing on issues and decisions.

I got a warm welcome from all the groups covered. The Journal began to publish the notes and The San Juan Islanderand Salish Current contacted me about publishing them as well. The Salish Current interviewed me and ran a nice article. (“‘Surprisingly interesting’: local observers do local reporting on local government” Salish Current, Dec. 22, 2022)

We started to get positive feedback from the public about the value of having the notes, and the occasional correction or complaint. In November 2022, the membership gave the go-ahead to make it official and launch an Observer Corps. We added the SJI fire district and the Board of Health to our reporting.

Four members of the board stepped forward to cover the port, the school board, the fire district and the hospital district, and two members agreed to serve as back-up as needed. I cover the remaining meetings. We all have enjoyed getting a better sense of what these institutions do and the issues that they grapple with. We are also happy to hear from the public that they appreciate the information and are happy when we see other members of the public attend and make public comment. 

Jill Belcovson, who covers the Port of Friday Harbor, said, “I have been attending the port commission meetings for several months and writing notes for the Observer Corps. It has been very informative to get to know the workings of the Port and the diligence with which the commissioners steward their efforts. It is an enriching experience and attending these meetings, I feel much closer to our community.” 

Steve Bowman, who covers the San Juan Island school board, said, “I got involved because I wanted to learn more about how the school board functions and to inform others about the board. I have covered the school board for about six months and have developed a deep appreciation for how hard the board works, how difficult the superintendent’s job is and how tough the handling of finances in a small, remote school district is. It is very rewarding and I would recommend that anyone interested should sign up to cover a board or committee.”

We have gotten requests to also cover the planning commission and the Library Board of Trustees, but do not have enough observers to add these meetings. We also have not been able to cover school board, fire or public hospital districts on other islands. Most of our members live on San Juan Island, but we want to recruit more members on other islands and to expand our coverage beyond the county seat. We are also happy to talk to people who might be interested in serving as an observer but don’t want to join the League.

The LWVSJ Observer Corps notes are helping to fill the gap in coverage of local government, but it is no substitute for real reporting. We do not reach out for more background or various points of view on the issues discussed in these meetings. We don’t take a position or add context, and the information is brief — almost bullet points. While it is great that many people find our notes useful in keeping up with local doings, it is bandage, not a panacea. 

— Contributed by Necia Quast

Ed.: Links to the Observer Corps reports are found in the Salish Current Friday newsletter “Government” section.

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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