By Minor Lile
It has been a busy two weeks for the San Juan County Charter Review Commission, with the full commission coming together for two community town hall meetings and two regular meetings. The eight committees that have been established to delve more deeply into topics and issues under consideration, also continue to meet on a weekly basis.
The town halls were held March 12 and 13. In addition to the commissioners who participated, nearly 90 people attended the meetings, 27 of whom provided comment and spoke to a wide range of topics.
Topics discussed included allowing electronic signature gathering in the initiative process, creating a County Ombudsperson position, improving citizen access to public records, and conducting a build-out analysis that would assess the overall carrying capacity of the islands. Several participants expressed their view that the County Manager position should continue to be appointed rather than elected. A full list of the topics that were discussed and video recordings of the town halls are available on the Charter Review Commission webpage, (https://www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission).
There were numerous comments in support of strengthening the county’s approach to protecting and preserving the environment and addressing climate change. One aspect the commission is considering is the establishment of an office with responsibility for guiding the county’s approach to environmental issues. Most of those who spoke to this topic said that they would prefer the position be appointed rather than elected.
County Council member Cindy Wolf addressed this question at the Saturday town hall. “If you want somebody who is focused on the environment to be overlooking everything every department does, and you put them in a position where they are elected and are peer-to-peer with the county council, you’re now creating a situation for the staff where they have multiple bosses. That could get really confusing as a structural change in county government. So are there ways you can do something with the current departments such as environmental resources that would accomplish the same goals?”
Lauren Stephens, the wife of Councilmember Jamie Stephens, also questioned the idea of adding an elected environmental oversight position to county government.
“Creating a new position of some kind of climate czar is not necessary. I think you can achieve the goal of having the county aware of environmental issues, and acting on them in different ways, without spending a lot of money on a new position.” Stephens emphasized that she was only speaking for herself in sharing this perspective.
Toward the end of Saturday’s town hall, Commissioner Anne Marie Shanks, chair of the commission’s climate and environment committee, shared her thoughts on the topic. She said that while the question of whether a climate commissioner should be elected or appointed is still under discussion; and that effectively addressing climate and environmental issues requires close coordination among different county departments. Currently, there is no county office with overall responsibility for supervision. As a result, “many, many years have gone by where suggestions have been made and we haven’t done anything; and, as many of you have said, the time is now. We have got to step up to the table because we are failing our children, we are failing our environment, and we are failing what we have inherited.”
A new topic that came up at both town halls was the concept of utilizing rank choice voting as a way of electing county officials. Rank choice voting (sometimes referred to as instant run-off voting) is an alternative to the traditional winner-take-all method of electing officeholders. Voters rank the candidates for a particular office by preference, i.e. first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. If no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot count, then the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped and the votes of those who supported that candidate go to the second choice candidate. The process continues until one candidate obtains a majority of the vote.
At the Friday town hall, Orcas resident and chair of the San Juan County Democrats, David Turnoy, said that rank choice voting would be “a real step forward for representative democracy” and noted that “20 states now use some form of this process.” At Saturday’s town hall, Orcas Food Co-op General Manager Learner Limbach said he also favored ranked choice voting.
“It is more democratic and allows us to vote for our first choice candidate without throwing away our vote or helping to elect someone we don’t want. And it is also more equitable in that candidates feel encouraged to run because they don’t feel like they are going to be the spoiler.”
Not everyone, however, spoke in favor of rank voting. Based on her understanding of the process, Orcas resident Cindy Carter argued that “in counties and places where it’s being done, the people’s favorite never gets elected as attrition takes over, and it seems to be disenfranchising voters.” The topic has been assigned to the Commission’s Elections Committee for further consideration.
Meanwhile, the commission continues to hear from local elected and appointed officials at their regular Wednesday meetings. At the March 10 meeting, Sheriff Ron Krebs and County Manager Mike Thomas made presentations and answered questions.
In his presentation, Krebs described a number of reforms that he has implemented since being sworn in as Sheriff in 2015. He also acknowledged that while there are systems in place to conduct an independent review of controversial situations, there is no direct citizen oversight of the department. He added in this regard, “the oversight really is the community that elected me.” In response to another question regarding diversity in the Sheriff’s department, Krebs noted that his ability to hire a diverse range of deputies and other staff is limited to some degree by the procedures the SJC Civil Service Board is required to follow.
The Commissioners heard from County Assessor John Kulseth and Treasurer Rhonda Pederson at the March 17 meeting. One of the issues the commission is looking at is whether it would be beneficial to the county’s operations to consolidate the currently elected offices of assessor, treasurer and auditor in some way. Both Kulseth and Pederson spoke to this issue.
Kulseth, who has been the County Assessor for 17 years, and been through four election cycles, said that while he can see both sides of the issue, he believes that, “the assessor’s relationship is with the taxpayer. It’s not with the county manager and it’s not with the county council. The assessor’s job requires a lot of independent judgment and having that independent judgment is a critical piece to appraising property for tax purposes.”
During her presentation, Pederson, who was elected as County Treasurer in 2014, said that in looking at the possibility of consolidating these three departments, her biggest concern “is that residents would lose the current system of checks and balances” in the collection and distribution of county funds. She also noted that Pierce County is currently the only one of Washington’s 39 counties that has consolidated the Assessor’s and Treasurer’s offices.
The commission meets regularly on Wednesdays beginning at 4:00 p.m. The agendas, minutes and video recordings of past meetings of the full commission and its committees are available on the CRC webpage. The public is welcome to attend all meetings. More information may be found at https://www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission.