by Minor Lile
Over the past few weeks, the San Juan County Charter Review Commission has been busy on numerous fronts. In addition to conducting two town hall meetings, the commission has met several times to hone its proposed recommendations and charter amendment proposals. Commissioners have also taken time to consider when they will present their findings to the San Juan County Council.
In the lead-up to the town halls on June 1 and June 2, the CRC appointed an Executive Committee composed of seven members who were given the responsibility of consolidating the initial list of proposed charter amendments. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the committee met several times and narrowed the list of proposed amendments from over 20 down to 11. The committee also developed a set of 11 recommendations to the county council and other county departments. The draft list of proposed charter amendments and recommendations is available at https://www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission. It is likely that further changes will occur before the final list is adopted and forwarded to the county council.
At its May 27 meeting, the commission voted to divide the 11 proposed amendments and present them to voters over the next two years. That decision was thrown into question by a subsequent opinion provided by Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord’s office shortly after the May 27 meeting stating that from a legal standpoint it would be preferable for the proposed amendments to be offered in a single batch.
This opinion seemed to contradict advice that had been provided to the CRC earlier in the year. In response, CRC chair Kevin Ranker sent a May 28 email to Gaylord, the council and County Manager Mike Thomas. Ranker wrote that Gaylord’s “recent memo is extremely troubling,” in that it contradicted guidance that he had provided the CRC in February. As Ranker cited in his email, on Feb. 3 Gaylord stated, “[The CRC] can submit your amendments in two different installments. One in time for the 2021 election and one in time for the 2022 election.” He also included a slide in the February presentation with the same information.
Asked for a response to Ranker’s email, Gaylord said that the current advice of his office is that the CRC should “take a conservative approach and submit one set of recommendations to county voters either this November or in November 2022, rather than split the proposals between two elections.” To do so would, in his opinion, opens the process to legal challenge.
When asked about the advice he had provided in February, Gaylord said, “We always update our legal advice as we learn new information, and prior legal advice is superseded” by the additional information that is gathered along the way. Gaylord said he was “surprised at the reaction of the CRC because we’re just trying to help them.”
“Our objective is to see that they follow a process that is most defensible in court. They have plenty of time to respond to this,” Gaylord continued. “The deadline for submittal is Aug. 1 or so for this year, and the deadline for submittal (for 2022) is by the end of the year, so they have these two options still available to them.”
Partly in response to this development, the CRC voted to postpone attending the June 8 county council meeting, at which they had planned to present their final list of proposed amendments for the 2021 ballot. The commissioners also agreed they need more time to refine their proposals and assimilate input received from the public at the June town hall meetings.
More than 100 people attended the two town halls, with nearly 40 of those attending offering testimony. Many spoke in favor of the proposal to establish a County Office of Climate and Environment with an elected commissioner, while some said that they felt an appointed commissioner would be more effective. Commissioner Anne Marie Shanks spoke to why the commission is recommending that office be an elected position.
“We spent some time discussing whether this should be an elected or an appointed position [and concluded that] appointed officials don’t have the authority to move forward without going through the filter of someone else’s priorities,” She said. “The model we settled on was that of the State Lands Commissioner, who is responsible for running the Department of Natural Resources.”
There were also several comments regarding the CRC’s recommendation that the charter be amended to provide for the establishment of a Justice and Equity Commission. While a handful of those testifying said that they did not see the need for such a commission in San Juan County, most of those who offered comment spoke in support of the proposal.
Several participants also shared a more general observation regarding the charter review process and said that they hoped the overall outcome of the process would be meaningful. Ben Bama from San Juan Island noted he has attended numerous meetings and closely observed the commission’s deliberations. He expressed appreciation for the “hard work, dedication, passion and determination” of the commission.
“I’ve heard it said at times [in the CRC meetings] that these proposals are ‘bold and visionary,’ which I think they can be if wielded properly,” Bama said. “I truly hope they will be after all this work. It would be heartbreaking to see these words just become values that look good on paper or a brass plaque. [These proposed changes] can’t just be another ineffectual tool that ultimately maintains the status quo through inaction.”