Notes from an observer: our public officials - Salish Current
February 9, 2024
Notes from an observer: our public officials
Necia Quast

League of Women Voters of the San Juans have added Observer Corps assignments to their list of activities, sitting in and reporting on local government — and have some observations about the process itself. Speaking of voting, as LWVSJ members often do, it’s time once again: ballots are due next Tuesday, Feb. 13, for special elections around the area. (LWVSJ photo)

February 9, 2024
Notes from an observer: our public officials
Necia Quast

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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 the 2022 pilot phase of the League of Women Voters of the San Juans (LWVSJ) Observer Corps, I covered the public meetings of seven government bodies and commissions, ranging from the county council to the San Juan Island school board. 

In 2023 four of the those were taken on by other observers. I still cover three and occasionally some of the others as backup. Over two years, I have covered over a hundred meetings and seen dozens of local elected officials carry out their work.

People ask me how this affected my views of local government and often assume that the officials are less than thrilled to have me there, potentially cramping their style. My experience has been the opposite; every group has welcomed us from the start and their members often thank the League for the Observer Corps. They tend to feel that one of their biggest challenges is keeping constituents informed of the range and complexity of the issues on their agendas. Indeed, they seem thrilled that someone is paying attention and grateful for the help in keeping the public informed.

What has become clear is that these are demanding jobs that are a lot of work. Council members and commissioners need to master and stay current with large amounts of information — budgets and finances, laws and regulations, policies and procedures, legislative action at the state and federal level, community sentiment and specialized subjects. There is a lot of reading. They also serve on internal committees and represent their organizations on a variety of state and local boards, commissions and associations. For most, much of the work is unpaid aside from modest payment for official meetings. 

We are fortunate in San Juan County that most of our officials have professional and courteous relationships with each other, something that is not always the case in many places these days where some bodies have become deeply divided. Here, though members may have different views, they focus on getting things done and once a decision is made generally everyone supports moving forward. 

People ask how watching local government so closely has changed my views of local government, sometimes expecting it has made me more cynical. Seeing them at work has increased my confidence in local government. Mostly I have been impressed by the professionalism of our local officials and how seriously they take their responsibility to represent their constituents. They seek public comment and input and take criticism gracefully.  

Steve Bowman, who observes the San Juan Island school board meetings, said, “My attendance at the school board meetings has increased my understanding of how much they work to get things done and how it impacts the delivery of education to our kids across all grades.” 

We have public officials who work hard, and I encourage citizens to attend a meeting or two not just for public comment, but to watch our officials at work.

— Contributed by Necia Quast

Ed.: Links to the San Juan League of Women Voters Observer Corps accounts are found in the Salish Current Friday newsletter in the “Government/For the People” section.

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