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Kitsap County facilitator's behavior ruffles feathers during shoreline debate

Margaret Norton-Arnold - Courtesy photo
Margaret Norton-Arnold
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Local property rights advocates say the facilitator hired to keep the county’s ongoing shorelines debate civil could stand a few lessons in civility herself.

“I’ve been a part of this process myself before and I know how a facilitator is supposed to conduct herself,” said Vivian Henderson, executive director of the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners (KAPO). “But she’s incredibly rude. I was just shocked at her behavior.”

The faciltator in question is Margret Norton-Arnold, principal of Seattle-based Norton-Arnold and Associates, a consultant hired by the Kitsap County commissioners this spring to moderate discussions beween property owners, government officials, environmentalists and others participating in a task force to update the county’s shoreline regulations.

Under the state’s Shorelines Management Act of 1972, local jurisdictions are required to periodically revise regulations dealing with waterfront property. Kitsap County must make its revisions by 2012, and by law the process must include public participation.

The two- to three-year negotiation period, however, is often contentious. Consequently, the Kitsap commissioners contracted with a trained facilitator to guide the meetings to an amicable agreement.

The $119,000, multi-year contract is funded by a grant from the state Department of Ecology.

“We design and facilitate programs that enable leaders to hear — and benefit from — the collective wisdom of the public,” says the mission statement on Norton-Arnold’s company website. “It is our job to ensure that decisions are informed by the full range of interests, perspectives, opinions and needs that are present among those who will be affected by the actions of their leaders.”

By definition, the facilitator is neutral regarding the issues being discussed and respectful of all points of view.

Norton-Arnold, who conducted her third task force meeting on June 17, is neither, her critics charge.

“(Norton-Arnold’s) actions, along with the example she displayed at that meeting, were simply unacceptable,” KAPO President Tim Matthes told the Kitsap County commissioners at their regular June 28 meeting. “She made it very clear to those in attendance that she and she alone would decide what topics, testimony, conversation and discussions would be allowed at this meeting.”

“Throughout the meeting, Ms. Arnold was blatantly biased in her dealing with various task force members as well as the taxpayers who gave up their evening to attend the meeting,” echoed Seabeck resident Carolyn Riplinger in a formal letter of complaint delivered to the commissioners.

“I have never seen such condescending, arrogant or unprofessional handling of a public meeting in the 20-plus years I’ve attended county, school district, community council or fire district meetings,” she said. “She is totally unable to conduct herself in a professional way as a facilitator.”

Riplinger said Norton-Arnold “rolled her eyes, made comments under her breath (though loud enough for the audience to hear), used a tone of voice that dripped with sarcasm if she disagreed or didn’t want to give time to a member’s comments, and her body language visibly displayed her encouragement or displeasure. This woman totally lacks the skills of a facilitator and should not be considered for county business.”

Kitsap County Environmental Programs Manager Patty Charnas, who attended the June 17 meeting, countered that the complaints about Norton-Arnold are overblown.

“Really, we’re talking about 45 seconds out of an otherwise productive two-hour meeting,” she said. “There was a lot of frustration. Was it handled perfectly? No, but we’ve spoken to (Norton-Arnold) and made her aware of the situation.”

Charnas said the controversy arose when a task force member insisted on reading verbatim from a written document over the objections of other participants.

“We had discussed this at a previous meeting,” she said, “and people felt it would be more constructive if we had an actual dialogue rather than making a formal statement. What happened was regrettable, but it should in no way color the overall tone of the meeting.”

Charnas said Norton-Arnold would apologize for her “rude comment” at the next scheduled task force meeting, but would not be dismissed.

“The county has a contract with her,” Charnas said, “and we expect to honor that contract.”

For her part, Norton-Arnold said her only mistake was in neglecting to make clear at the previous meeting that reading from a written document was unacceptable.

“If I erred, it was in not putting down in black and white a policy that everyone else seemed to agree with,” she said. “The task force members were frustrated with the speaker, and I’m sorry if my trying to keep things from getting out of hand was seen as bias.”

KAPO members see it differently.

“(Norton-Arnold) is your personal representative paid for by all the citizens of Kitsap,” Matthes told the commissioners. “You should be aware of the damage she has caused, as well as the loss of confidence the public has suffered. Her actions have created distrust among the very people that you have encouraged to participate in the process.”

Matthes urged the board to replace Norton-Arnold immediately.

“Your corrective action should be swift and decisive,” he said. “We ask that you cancel her contract with the county as soon as possible. Find a new consultant/facilitator that is not biased and will respect the public and allow them to participate in our shoreline management update process without fear of her type of public ridicule.”

Matthes later said he was surprised none of the commissioners challenged his assertions about Norton-Arnold.

“Then again,” he said, “that could just mean they already know about her and don’t intend to do anything anyway.”

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