Photo by Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County Watch volunteers Emily Sisson, Gina McCoy and Isabelle Spohn, left to right, were honored for keeping government open and accountable by taking detailed notes at county commissioners’ meetings.

Okanogan County Watch cited as ‘wonderful resource’ for public and press

By Marcy Stamper

A group of Okanogan County residents who sit through two days’ of county commissioners’ meetings each week and methodically take and type up notes on everything that’s said have been the quintessential unsung heroes for years.

But this week the citizen note-takers, who call themselves Okanogan County Watch, got formal recognition for their efforts from the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG).

“It’s a wonderful resource for the public and the press,” said Mike Fancher, a WCOG board member, who presented the group’s Key Award to Isabelle Spohn and fellow note-takers during the Okanogan County commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday (April 10).

“If there’s anything else like this — a volunteer citizen group that is as dedicated to this kind of activity — I’m unaware of it,” said Fancher, a retired executive editor of the Seattle Times. “Somebody is sitting there with a watchful eye.”

WCOG found out about the note-takers through word-of-mouth. Fancher researched their efforts and recommended the group for the Key Award, which is given to individuals or organizations that have done something notable for the cause of open government in Washington.

“Okanogan County Watch is an inspiring example of citizens doing the hard work of keeping government open and accountable. People have the right to access government information and there is no better defender of that right than the people themselves,” said Fancher in an official statement about the award.

WCOG has a board of about 20 people from diverse backgrounds, including developers, businesspeople, environmentalists and lawyers. “We all share the belief that open government serves all of us equally,” said Fancher.

The “note-takers,” as they call themselves, started informally in 2014 when Twisp resident Isabelle Spohn began attending commissioners’ meetings — particularly discussions on land use — and writing up the proceedings.

At first, Spohn shared her notes informally with a few people interested in county affairs. Over the years, a growing number of policy wonks, journalists and ordinary people who care about their community — but who couldn’t make it to commissioners’ meetings — came to rely on the notes for a detailed window into local government.

Within a year, the notes found a home on the website run by Represent Okanogan County (ROC), a group that brought attention to county issues that ended formal operations earlier this year.

Today Spohn is one of five volunteers in Okanogan County Watch who take turns attending the commissioners’ meetings every Monday and Tuesday — and writing down everything that happens, who said what, and adding explanatory information to help people follow the proceedings.

This year County Watch set up its own website and Facebook page, where people can read or download notes of commissioners’ meetings, watch videos of public hearings and meetings on key topics, and access other information about county government.

Stimulating work

Their job may sound tedious, but the note-takers find it interesting to have an in-depth understanding of the workings of local government.

“It’s not dull, because I’m always trying to figure out what are they talking about, and what’s the context,” said Winthrop resident Emily Sisson, who started taking notes a year ago. “It’s something I always think about — I’m stimulated when I leave.”

Winthrop resident Gina McCoy began taking notes two years ago after calling ROC to see how she could help. She was told their biggest need was for more note-takers.

After attending meetings so regularly, the note-takers have developed specialties. In fact, the commissioners even consult them for their expertise on various issues, they said.

McCoy said she’s never heard that the commissioners feel the notes misrepresent the proceedings. “We have a fair amount of support from the commissioners, which is really gratifying,” she said.

Commissioner Andy Hover has been particularly supportive of the County Watch videos. He appreciates that the videos help constituents understand the issues and each commissioners’ perspective, said Spohn. Hover has said the county can’t afford to make its own videos, particularly because archiving them as searchable public records would be a huge undertaking, said Spohn.

The note-taking process has been refined over the years. At one point there were as many as 18 volunteers, who took turns covering a full day of meetings every Monday and Tuesday. Scheduling them, finding substitutes, and then editing and proofing the notes to be sure they were clear became a full-time job, said Spohn.

They’ve since come up with a more sustainable arrangement, with five regular volunteers. Spohn, Sisson, McCoy and Pine Forest resident Jan Young each cover half a day a month. Oroville resident George Thornton opts to cover every Tuesday for the entire day. Katie Haven, who lives near Methow, takes notes and is their webmaster. Rick Gillespie, of Chesaw, also provides web support.

Spohn still reviews all the notes for accuracy. Reading the in-depth notes each week also helps her pick up on topics or trends that might otherwise go unnoticed, she said. All the notes include summaries and headings to make them more useful.

While the commissioners are responsible only for local government, because Okanogan County contains vast amounts of land, the commissioners deal with issues that are important on a larger scale, said Spohn. “I’ve developed an appreciation for how complex their job is — it covers everything from gravel sizes to the state Legislature,” she said.

“Lots of people mention they appreciate what we’re doing,” said McCoy. “I think it’s all to the good. Even though the board is conscientiously trying to do a good job, citizen engagement is still a positive thing.”

One reason the group started taking notes was because official commissioners’ minutes were often not available for weeks or even months, making it hard for people to understand the issues and be informed participants in county affairs, said Spohn.

Having detailed notes that come out within a week of a meeting — and generally within a day or two — enables citizens to participate in real time, said McCoy.

Since Okanogan County Watch has been posting its notes online, the commissioners and the clerk of the board have worked hard to make their minutes available sooner, said Spohn. All County Watch notes carry a disclaimer explaining that they’ve been taken by one of several volunteer citizen note-takers and are as close to verbatim as possible, but summarized as necessary. They direct people to the commissioners’ website for the officially approved minutes.

“I appreciate that the commissioners have a difficult job. This is a chance to see them as individuals conscientiously trying to discharge their duties,” said McCoy. In fact, becoming more engaged as a note-taker prompted McCoy to get more involved in county government. She recently applied for — and was appointed to — a seat on the county’s planning commission.

The note-takers were pleased their efforts have been recognized. “I’m honored to join this list of people who are advocating for open government,” said Spohn.

Okanogan County Watch’s notes, videos and other information about Okanogan County government are available on www.countywatch.org.