Charter review 101

County residents will decide how much to shake up the current county council structure in this November’s election with a vote on three propositions devised by the Charter Review Commission.

The propositions would cut the council from six part-time members to three full-time members (prop. 1); replace the executive county administrator position with a county manager (prop. 2); and mandate that all county council meetings are open to the public (prop. 3).

Approved by majority vote by the 21-member commission, the propositions were developed through a series of meetings that included testimony from county officials, former freeholders, and others with a goal to facilitate a more effective governance structure. The propositions do not overturn Home Rule, adopted in 2005.

For a variety of letters on the topic, see our letters to the editor section in this week’s edition and at Included in this story are two guest columns: one for the propositions and one against.

Yes for propositions


Lopez Island member of the CRC

One of the most interesting aspects of the Charter Review Commission’s review process was that the overwhelming majority of the members, with diverse experience, all having a keen interest in county government, and with varied political interests and philosophies, came together with three positive suggestions to make our government work better and more efficiently.

The CRC is comprised of 21 members elected by the citizens of San Juan County. Its assignment was to review all portions of the charter and make its recommendations available for voter approval or disapproval.

It met weekly for 6-7 hours for over four-and-a-half months beginning last January, and individual members put in hundreds of hours on their own researching and preparing for weekly meetings.

It was obvious at the first meeting that many CRC members had given considerable thought to the charter. Early on, members independently brought to the table sections of the charter they felt needed attention. After several meetings most of us seemed to agree on major issues.

We made comparisons between Washington state counties, their size and operations, and had many discussions with their commissioners/councilors. State and county laws were researched, and information received from public testimonies and letters was evaluated. Extensive findings were documented.

The three proposed amendments cover sections that most members felt needed revision. They were re-evaluated a number of times throughout the review period and each time the vote showed overwhelming support for them.

At our last meeting, 17 out of 19 members voted to have these amendments put on the ballot. Two members voted against it, one abstained and one was absent.

The CRC has been criticized rudely and inaccurately by one or two people portraying the process used as flawed, coming to conclusion too quickly and implying that our members met “behind closed doors”. Not true.

CRC members put a huge amount of thought and effort into the review process both before and throughout the meeting period. Those who voted for CRC candidates last November obviously wanted people on the CRC who had given a lot of thought to the charter.

It is unbelievable after living with this experiment for six years that anyone would come unprepared and empty handed to the very first meeting.

Apparently, those critics objected to, or couldn’t understand, members being prepared. They still can’t.

We accomplished a lot and it is because of members having a great deal of practical and managerial experience, community involvement and insight that enabled us to operate efficiently.

The commission included two current and three former planning commissioners, two former elected freeholders, a former five-term county clerk, a county council staff member, a former county commissioner, two attorneys, a former member of the Ferry Advisory Committee and member of the Agricultural Resources Committee, a former board member of the Economic Development Council, local business leaders, two former port commissioners, retired executives, farmers and individuals with extensive corporate financial experience.

Reject Prop. 1 & 2


Orcas Island member of the county council

In 2005, the voters of San Juan County overwhelmingly chose to replace the antiquated commission form of government with a modern, charter form custom crafted to meet our local circumstances.

A six member part-time County Council replaced the full-time, three-member at large Commission. The County was divided into smaller, geographic districts of equal population respecting the integrity of our islands’s communities. Small, local districts assure that the Council candidates are known personally and elected by their neighbors avoiding costly county-wide elections; equal districts assure the constitutional principle of one-person, one-vote. For a measure to pass the Council a majority vote of 4 is required.  This prevents one single island or a Council voting block of only 2 from dominating County government. A six member Council also allows creative, informal discussions between individual Council members to occur thus improving efficiency.

The Charter established the separations of powers.  The County Council exercises the powers of the legislative branch by setting policy and passing laws; the County Administrator exercises the powers of the executive branch by running the day-to-day operations.  The Charter made significant strides in returning the government to the people by taking it out of the hands of partisan politicians whose meddling in the daily operations of the County was a disaster.

Charters are not born perfect.  As freeholders we recognized this and made provisions that after 5 years of operation a Charter Review Commission would be formed to assess our product.  We envisioned this as an opportunity to fine-tune the Charter and consider additional improvements that were discussed during the Freeholder process.  The Charter Review Commission chose instead to gut the Charter by recommending reverting back to the old, failed system.

It has taken more time than expected but our Charter form of government is now coming of age.  During the past nearly four years I have been a member of the County Council  I estimate that at least half of my time has been spent grappling with issues left over from the old system.  The good news is that solid progress is now being made to improve the quality of County government.

We have produced balanced budgets with a 6-year financial planning horizon.  We have a formal financial reserve policy and we are funding it.  Under the Charter decisions are being made; real issues such as Solid Waste, Sustainability of County Government, Critical Areas Ordinance Update, Essential Public Facilities, Housing Element and Emergency/Wireless Communications are being definitively addressed.  The backlog of the past is finally going away so we can focus our attention to the future and where San Juan County wants to go in the next decade.

These gains have been hard won.  Please, stay the course.

If you believe in the principle of local representation and the principle of one-person one-vote, Reject Proposition 1!  If you believe in a strong County Administrator accountable to the Council and the separation-of-powers to prevent politicizing operations Reject Proposition 2!

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