After an unsuccessful run for mayor of Ocean Shores four years ago, Susan Conniry began holding monthly meetings at the North Beach Senior Center to engage the public in topics of general interest to the community. Mostly it involved city government, but schools or whatever had people talking were all fair game.
With lots of retirees in a community already known for citizen engagement, the meetings quickly caught on and became weekly, with steady attendance. Now Conniry is banking on that grass roots outreach to help her reverse the outcome of four years ago and unseat incumbent Mayor Crystal Dingler in their rematch.
Conniry, born in England and a naturalized citizen, came to Ocean Shores five years ago from California, where she had served on an elected board for a fire protection district. That experience gave her a taste for public service through local government, she says.
Conniry, who won the four-way primary with 42.7 percent of the vote (Dingler got 38 percent), says a key to her administration would be all the ways in which it would allow citizens to participate.
“When I came here, I came with this amazing sense that all you had to do is engage your citizens and it would be successful, and it wasn’t happening here,” she said. “… What I realized … is they wanted to be heard, they want to be involved in all the discussions.”
She had only been in town about a year when she filed to run for City Council four years ago. But she switched that filing to challenge Dingler for mayor when it appeared Dingler would be running unopposed.
Conniry lost, but two years later ran for a City Council seat and won, beating a two-term incumbent. But the role of a council member is limited, she said, and in order to make more substantial changes and bring more people into government, she wants to be mayor, Conniry said.
She says City Hall isn’t taking advantage of the resource it has in the form of its retirees. “We have the most brilliant people here in Ocean Shores. I can’t imagine why we go outside Ocean Shores to hire consultants when they all live here and are willing to do it for free. The wealth of information here is just extreme. Why don’t we let them participate, have ad hoc committees, have citizen advisory committees, have task forces … let everybody come and be part of government. Citizen engagement in government works.”
Half the voters in Ocean Shores are dead set against tax or fee increases of any kind, Conniry said. She said that when the city has needed more money to provide services, there hasn’t been enough effort to look for alternatives or to educate citizens about costs. She says that after that education process, if citizens still want the services and there’s no other way to pay, tax and fee increases might be necessary, but at least they will have been part of the process.
Emergency medical services is a good example, she said. The city is currently budgeted for 19 people in the fire department, but a study done a couple years ago determined that more than 30 are called for and the department is pushing for more hires.
She’s skeptical. Consultants “are always going to tell you they need more. … Are there alternatives without having to go to the taxpayer for more money? If there isn’t any and the public determines it needs more, then you could ask for more money,” she said.
She didn’t offer up alternatives for the current situation, but gave one example of a long-term alternative that might lighten the department’s call load — an urgent care facility in Ocean Shores. Many patients, often elderly, are taken all the way into the emergency room at the hospital in Aberdeen. Many don’t need that level of care and the trip takes responders out of service, but it’s necessary in order to bill Medicare and Medicaid, she said.
She says that when the city raised ambulance service utility rates by more than $11 per month to retain firefighters who had been hired with grant money, the council didn’t give citizens, many of whom are on fixed incomes and need to budget in advance, enough warning.
A hot topic in Ocean Shores lately has been rules for clearing lots of vegetation in order to build on them. A spate of building on undeveloped lots left the city’s permit department overwhelmed last summer amid complaints that developers weren’t following rules by removing too much vegetation and the city wasn’t stopping them. The city has since hired a new planning director and Conniry is optimistic that will make a difference.
Conniry says she favors a “managed growth” approach.
“When I say managed growth, the developers said, ‘Yikes, she isn’t going to allow building.’ Of course it doesn’t mean that. Everyone has the right to build, but we can build it so it works for everyone.”
On the City Council’s recent decision to play an active role in sponsoring and promoting four major events in town, the Go Hog Wild motorcycle gathering, the Razor Clam Festival, Sand and Sawdust Festival and the Winter Fanta-Sea that are designed to bring tourists to down, Conniry says that’s a tough issue for her. She’s not sure those events help businesses that much. She said she went around and asked businesses how they did the weekend of the motorcycle event. One said he lost money and another said it didn’t make a difference, she said. The convention center, where the large events are usually centered, has sometimes been a financial burden, she said, but it has to be paid off, so the city has to make it work. She said she favors the type of community festivals and street fairs that Aberdeen and Hoquiam have that cater to locals.
A prime example is the observance next year of the city’s founding 50 years ago. She says she wants the anniversary to create a big enough splash that it will have legs into the future.