As the year enters its final quarter, San Juan County Council Chairman Rick Hughes sat down with the Islands’ Sounder to discuss local current events.
In the midst of a summer filled with malfunctioning ferries, Hughes wrote a sternly worded letter to Governor Jay Inslee.
“I don’t think he was too thrilled with some of the things I said in the letter,” said Hughes. “I’m not sure if they’ll take a meeting with me or not. We’ll find out.”
In mid-July, two broken ferries prompted an alternate schedule for 13 days. Then, in early August, the San Juans’ newest boat, the Samish, had mechanical issues, plunging the routes right back to limited sailings for three days.
“If I feel our community isn’t being treated fairly or getting the attention we need, there comes a point we have to do something,” said Hughes. “If we don’t have the direct authority to do something we try to communicate.”
Around the same time, on July 26, the Washington State Transportation Commission announced ferry fare increases that will be implemented over the next two years. The commission is required to ensure ferry fares generate $381 million in operating revenue between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2019, as required in the recently passed two-year state transportation budget for Washington State Ferry operations.
Hughes said he recognizes county residents’ frustrations with a fare increase being announced during multiple service disruptions but does not blame the federal agencies for the increase.
“We’ve been working on this rate increase for a fair amount of time,” he said. “The rate increase timing wasn’t great but I think it’s unfair to hold ferries and the transportation commission at fault for that. We have to figure out ways to continue to maintain and fund the operations of the ferry system, and rate increases are how you do that. I know it’s getting expensive but the state is paying for 50 percent of operation and all of the capital on our route.”
Hughes said he has sympathy for WSF staff because they operate on a shoestring budget. He added that this summer, he has spoken with WSF Assistant Secretary Amy Scarton almost weekly, keeping her aware of the situation in San Juans.
“Every system – every route – in the ferry system has had issues this summer and have had some kind of boat disruption that has caused lack of service for that community,” said Hughes. “We’ve had to do our part. We have to support and promote the growth of this system as a whole … At the same time, we need to be treated fairly once we’ve done our part.”
The problem, Hughes said, is that many people who live elsewhere in the state see the San Juan Islands as wealthy, and state funding for the ferries has reflected that misconception. He said that though ridership continues to rise, WSF has had to make do with the same budget for quite some time.
“At some point, the ferry system needs to be looked at and considered to be an integral part of our state’s transportation network. And it needs to be maintained like a bridge or a tunnel or a highway. This is our farm-to-market road … This is our version of I-5 or I-90,” said Hughes. “We need to be provided the same basic services everyone else in the state … Until you find a dedicated funding source, I don’t know how you do that.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 19, WSTC will be in Friday Harbor for its September meeting. Watch for coverage of that session in the Sept. 27 edition of the Sounder. Hughes said he was disappointed with how few members of the public attended the fare increase meeting in July.
“People have to get more engaged – yes, the engagement can be through myself or the other commissioners or through other county employees,” said Hughes. “People also have to be engaged in our community, not just when there’s a problem, but in front of it.”
Orcas Island Park and Ride
The Washington State Department of Transportation granted the county $750,000 to construct the Orcas Island Park and Ride facility at the Orcas Ferry Landing to move parking from Orcas Road to a new designated parking lot nearby. The county also allocated $710,000 toward the project.
On Aug. 16, San Juan County Engineer Colin Huntemer was informed that county staff would only receive $405,000 of a $760,000 grant for the ferry landing park and ride because WSDOT staff did not budget for the remaining funds in the 2017-19 biennium. He told councilmen Bill Watson and Jamie Stephens during an Aug. 29 council meeting.
By Friday, Sept. 1, Senator Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, told the Sounder that a “solution has been found thanks to the hard work of Councilman Jamie Stephens and the Department of Transportation.”
The county signed a 25-year lease with Washington State Ferries allowing the usage of a 5.32-acre property on which the park and ride was built. The lease can then be renewed twice for 10-year periods. The county does not have to pay any rent to WSF as long as it does not charge for parking in the lot.
“I think we might have jumped the gun a little bit by getting everyone all worried about something that I don’t think is going to happen,” said Hughes. “I think that there was a miscommunication on their side. I really don’t think this is anyone’s fault. It was just something that happened and we’ll figure it out and we’ll move on.”
The Immigrant Rights Group of the Orcas Women’s Coalition needed to collect more than 1,635 signatures from San Juan County registered voters by June 30 for the initiative to be voted on during the next election. They collected 2,382 valid signatures before submission.
Council had the option to vote on whether to accept the immigration initiative as is or send it to the public to be voted upon. On Aug. 15, the county council unanimously adopted the ordinance.
The initiative was introduced to prevent San Juan County from collecting information to be given to the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection that could aid the agencies in deportation. It prohibits the county sheriff’s office from helping the above federal agencies deport members of the community.
According to the Orcas Women’s Coalition website, the initiative does not interfere with arrests for federal or state crimes. Instead, it prevents the San Juan County Sheriff’s office from utilizing their county-paid time being involved in federal civil matters that the federal government is responsible for handling.
“I think it was the right thing to do,” said Hughes, who received two personal phone calls from Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib encouraging him to vote in favor of the initiative. “We’re basically already doing everything they put in there so it doesn’t really change anything.”
A large number of citizens spoke in favor of the initiative’s adoption during the Aug. 15 meeting, however some people were in opposition. Many residents feel the council should have allowed the initiative to go to public vote, while others feared that it makes San Juan County appear to be a “sanctuary county.”
In two executive orders signed by President Donald Trump earlier this year, he called for local law enforcement to assist in finding and deporting undocumented immigrants. Several states, cities and counties across the country refused to follow that executive order and these places are referred to as “sanctuary cities.”
This San Juan County initiative is meant to provide legal reassurance to local immigrants that the San Juan County Sheriff’s office will not be actively pursuing them based on their immigration status. County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord said during the Aug. 15 meeting that the federal government could potentially limit funding to the county for declaring itself a “sanctuary jurisdiction,” a county, city or state that does not cooperate with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.
“We’re not a ‘sanctuary county.’ This doesn’t say we’re a ‘sanctuary county.’ There’s no such thing as a ‘sanctuary county,’” said Hughes. “When it’s all said and done, I think it was the right thing to do for the community. We will continue to participate and partner with any federal or state agency that works in our community.”