Interview with Kittitas County Dist 2 Commissioner Laura Osiadacz
By Bruce Coe
Central Washington Sentinel Aug 1, 2019~
We sat down for a chat with Kittitas County District 2 Commissioner Laura Osiadacz. Commissioner Osiadacz was appointed to replace Gary Berndt and her appointment was subsequently confirmed by a general election. She has held the office for three-and-a-half years, so we started out by asking her what has changed between the time of her appointment and the present day. As always, our questions revolve around the basic tenets of the Central Washington Sentinel: transparency, vision, and accountability.
“Some of the challenges we have are the same challenges we have had for a long time in Kittitas County – preparing for the future. Looking at long term planning and how we can become what we want to be in the future. In that vein, we’ve made some changes to help assist us with that challenge. A good example is the proposed hiring of a long-range planner in our Community Development Department. As Commissioners, we have all looked at the necessity of hiring a long-range planner and feel that it will be an important asset for taking a look at the future and how to respond to the problems we will meet in the future.”
“We have heard loud and clear that a vision of what the county will look like in the future is important to people. Subarea planning may be a good example of that, And I think that is something we need to look at, particularly in areas where we are seeing the quickest growth..”
She also sees road and bridge infrastructure as important aspects of supporting the kind of growth that we will see in the future in Kittitas County. She states that roads are aging because of deferred maintenance over the years in terms of both the quality and capacity of road and bridge load limits.
“Addressing that will be a huge challenge for us. We have around 400 bridges in the county and a large number of those are closer and closer to being out of compliance with the new load ratings on those bridges. In some cases, a substandard load limit on those bridges is a detriment to our agricultural community. We’re trying to look forward into infrastructure improvements, we need to be more proactive and not reactive to those situations as they arise.”
She sees issues like the Boulder Creek bridge as being important to tourism and recreation and additionally as being an important upgrade to a fish-bearing stream. The cost to repair that bridge is about $750,000. Though the state of Washington is under a mandate to repair culverts that restrict fish passage, that ruling only applies to State route, not County roads. The Commissioners tried to solve that situation during the last legislative session in Olympia, but their efforts were rebuffed. The commissioners perceive that cost inequity as an unfunded mandate since the state sets the standards but seems to be unwilling to shoulder the costs of upgrading the infrastructure.
“Our concern is that those costs may trickle down to the county and to the cities, maybe private landowners as well.”
How will the county react to future mandates from the state considering that the state has to reassess its Growth Management Plan next year?
“Basically, there is strength in numbers, and one of the most important partners we have in this is the Washington State Association of Counties, WSAC. I anticipate that during our next legislative session we’ll be discussing our position on the GMA with the WSAC. Although there are counties from across the state of Washington in the association, rural counties generally feel differently than representatives from cities and more populated counties. Rural county constituents are represented by WSAC and their voices are heard through that means. We tend to have an alliance with counties that share the same issues as Kittitas County statewide.That’s very helpful for us. We need to be smart on how we join forces and gather allies in order to deal with the wishes of our “larger cousins’.”
Commissioner Osiadacz says she sees the general state vision of growth management and planning as a counter to what she would like to see in Kittitas County. She says that within the confines of the GMA, it is difficult for a smaller rural county to determine who they want to be and what they want to look like. She sees the issue of accessory dwelling units as an example of this and states that she would like to see more options for increased housing in the county. The state is very vocal about wishing to address affordable housing but they are reluctant to change any of the regulations that prohibit higher densities in rural areas.
Also Read: Ruckelshaus Center publishes findings on Washington State’s Growth Management Act (Opens in a new browser tab)
What is her vision for the future Kittitas County and in particular her district, the upper County?
“I thought a lot about that and, to be honest, we were just talking about this the other day with my other two seatmates. You would think that after being in office for three-and-a-half years then I would start to become more patient with the process but it’s actually the opposite. I become more frustrated by the amount of time things seem to take. I think that’s because there isn’t as much that should have occurred that I would have liked to have seen occur in that period of time. That’s disappointing for me.
“I would like to have seen more positive changes specifically within our codes for housing and building requirements. But if I had my crystal ball and asked it for a view the future for Kittitas County I would say that I would hope to see a well-thought-out and well documented long-range plan for various sectors of the county.”
Kittitas county is host to a variety of ecologies, terrains and as such, varied societal responses to those differences. She says that the specific differences in our communities should be recognized in our planning processes.
“I think we have to take a hard look at what makes sense in those communities, and what makes sense to the people who live in those communities. I think that anybody who has even been close to Issaquah and seen what has happened there over the years does not want to see that happen here.
A good example is the State’s ruling concerning the regulation of on-site septic systems. What may be a necessity for King County is not necessarily pertinent to Kittitas County.
“Our soils are different, we don’t have saltwater shellfish here. The blanket approach to this kind of regulation no bearing in a mountain/desert county like Kittitas County. Scientifically it just doesn’t make sense. We’re not a rainforest, we don’t border Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean.”
As the county grows, does Commissioner Osiadacz feel that government transparency it’s where it should be in terms of communicating with the public?
“I’m always open to feedback. I think we’ve done a lot in terms of transparency. Since I’ve been in office we’ve started live streaming and recording public meetings. One of the things I heard from my community was that they really didn’t like the fact that all the Commissioners’ meetings are in Ellensburg. And second, they didn’t like that the meetings were held during the day when people who worked could not attend.
“In the past, if there were issues that were pertinent to a specific area like Cle Elum or Snoqualmie Pass, we would hold meetings in those areas. But people have to recognize that Ellensburg is the county seat and if we are going to do things like live-streaming an event in the upper County, we have to tow around a lot of people to make that happen. Right now we just don’t have that in the budget. Personally, I’d like to move everybody to Cle Elum and have them work out of there for half a year, but I don’t think that is going to happen!”
“The other issue is the timing of our meetings. We have begun to hold important meetings at night and you’ll see more and more of that. But in the past, we had tried to hold agenda and business meetings in the evening and nobody showed up. It’s difficult to know what is going to interest the public. Sometimes we just don’t get that right. Live streaming and recording of our meetings turn out to be the best way to try to solve that right now.”
“It may not be perfect, but it’s better than driving to Ellensburg. We are only the second county in the state to use Facebook as a form of communication. As it turns out that is fraught with privacy and transparency issues our Prosecuting Attorney is trying to deal with. But we thought it was worth the risk if it meant reaching a broader audience.”
Accountability is a different issue because sometimes people do not realize that, for instance, a legislative decision on the part of a county is the result of a state mandate. People may or may not realize there are many factors that go into a decision. The issue of trust is a large part of the accountability equation and many times a commissioner must earn that trust in order to carry them through difficult positions.
“Do people have enough knowledge of the issues we are talking about to understand them? One of the things that I have been surprised by is my occasional misunderstanding of what might or might not be important to the public. Part of my learning curve is understanding the difference between the two, and in the past, I have thought something might be really important when it turned out not to be. At other times I have thought something would just be of passing interest and it’s turned into a big deal.”
“The departure of our most recent Fire Marshall is a good example. Fire Marshal issues are often personality-based issues and there was a lot of discussion about personalities, which I thought was completely inappropriate. Rumors were floating around like wildfire and they really had no bearing on who we would decide to hire for the position. We made the decision based on what we thought was best for the county.”
She says that she is working with the municipalities in the Upper County to forge a closer and more cooperative relationship than in the past.
“As a commissioner, I would be open to a wider range of possibilities within the Cle Elum Urban growth area. I don’t know exactly what form that would take but it is certainly within reality. I think we have a better relationship with the city of Cle Elum now then we have had in the past. As we approach Economic Development issues around the urban growth areas of the municipalities in the upper County, we will definitely be part of the conversation. Suncadia, of course, is a big part of these discussions and I look forward to forging a better relationship with them in the future.”
“I think it’s an exciting time for the Upper County. People seem to be willing to come together and do something to strengthen the economic base of the Upper County. A lot of the things I hear people talk about really compliment each other.
“One of the things we haven’t had a chance to talk about is the good work that has been done to provide for healthy forests. Healthy and fire-resistant forests especially. I see a lot of collaboration between the cities, various interest groups, and County government, people wanting to work together even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on every aspect of an issue. Finding common ground in areas in order to move forward is really important to our growth, and especially our ability to bring a wider range of economic activity to our County. We are somewhat under the scrutiny of a lot of state and federal agencies because of the amount of public land we have here, but I think we’re in a position to work much more closely with everybody to benefit our County.”