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Citizens question Poulsbo’s transparency in annexation process

Residents want more access to beginning planning process.

POULSBO — Some Poulsbo Urban Growth Area residents have called into question the city’s transparency when it comes to decisions that will affect their land.

Molly Lee and Kurt Nordberg, two property owners in an area planned for future annexation, expressed concern last Tuesday after being denied entry into a pre-application meeting held at Poulsbo’s planning department. The meeting is an optional step in the annexation process, and comes before an actual application is submitted. It’s a chance for property owners, developers, consultants and attorneys to pose questions of city staff to help in the decision-making process, said planning director Barry Berezowsky.

To Lee, the denied entry was a question of open decision making, as the meeting discussed the Tibbets-Chamberlain annexation proposal, which abuts her property. She said she’d like to be informed on possible infrastructure and roadway plans that could affect her, and is concerned that some of the area is comprised of wetlands. She also worries the meetings provide a jumpstart to those included, meaning there may not be enough time for public comment before a deal is done.

“It has a lot to do with us,” she said. Lee is a regular attender of city committee and council meetings. “And yet I’m not able to attend one that affects my property. ... This is City Hall, doesn’t that imply a transparency?”

Berezowsky said the meetings are held privately in accordance with the Poulsbo municipal code to allow unhindered preliminary discussion, without conversational addendums or intimidation from a viewing audience.

“It’s the first opportunity that the city has to sit down with the developer or property owner and have a frank, open discussion about their proposal,” he said. “It’s not an attemp to do something behind the scenes.”

Often part of an applicant’s due diligence, the cost is $300.

“We may hear something at the meeting that actually doesn’t ever come to fruition,” Berezowsky said, adding it really comes down to a matter of time: within 10 days after a pre-application meeting the city makes available an audio tape and summary letter, “which should provide them as much information as they could possibly need to get a sense of what’s going on,” he said.

The practice isn’t uncommon; the city of Bremerton follows the same procedure for its pre-application meetings, according to Bremerton planner Allison Daniels.

Once an application is filed there is plenty of time, Berezowsky added, for residents to comment.

Nordberg, a member of Poulsbo’s Annexation Task Force, said he felt the closed-door meeting violated what the task force itself had agreed to. The group, comprised of city leaders and UGA residents, was commissioned to meet over a period of 10 weeks earlier this year to develop recommendations for the city to better its annexation-related policies.

“There’s some serious transparency problems there,” he said. “Now we’re right back to square one.”

UGA resident and task force member Marilyn Miller echoed Nordberg’s concern. Miller was not present at the meeting Tuesday, but agreed the denied entry violated what the task force had recommended.

“We specifically said that those meetings should be open to the public, that they could withhold comment, but there was no reason why the public couldn’t be invited, be able to hear what was being said,” she explained. “In terms of being an open and transparent government, the Annexation Task Force felt that should be something that people as early as possible have an idea of what is going on in their city.”

Council member Dale Rudolph, who let the task force, said recommendations made by the group were just that: recommendations.

“It started off with different ways that people can know what’s going on, and so one of the proposals was to sit in on the pre-app(lication meeting),” he said. Eventually alternatives were sought after gaining input from the planning department. He said the meetings are noncommittal consultations, and much of what is talked about has financial implications that shouldn’t be made public, similar in reasoning to executive sessions of the city council during which they discuss land acquisitions, personnel issues and pending litigation away from the public eye.

“There’s a certain part of business that can’t be always open to the public, but the results can be.” Rudolph said. “We absolutely believe that everything we’re doing is legal. If they can get a copy of the record, what’s not transparent?”

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