by Minor Lile
After several weeks of work at the sub-committee level, the San Juan County Charter Review Commission has begun to consider and vote on recommendations from the eight sub-committees that were formed in mid-March to consider proposed changes to the current County charter.
Recommendations from the sub-committees must be adopted by the full commission before proceeding further. Recommendations that are approved by the full commission will also be reviewed by the County Prosecutor’s office. Potential legal issues that are flagged by the Prosecutor’s office will go back to the commission for further review.
Townhall meetings have been scheduled for Tuesday, June 1, and Wednesday, June 2, to present the proposed recommendations and hear public response. Both townhalls will begin at 4:00 pm and continue until 6:00 pm. The CRC is currently scheduled to present its final recommendations and findings to the County Council on June 8.
In order for the final CRC recommendations to be adopted and incorporated into the county charter, they must also be approved by a majority of voters at a November general election. The current expectation is that any proposed changes to the Charter will be voted on in the general election this coming November, though it is possible that some recommendations could be carried over to the November 2022 general election.
Initiatives and Referendums
At the April 27 meeting, the commission voted to adopt two recommendations from the Initiative and Referendum sub-committee. This sub-committee was responsible for reviewing section six of the charter, which establish the rules for the county’s initiative and referendum processes.
The first recommendation would reduce the required number of signatures to bring an initiative to the ballot from 15% of those who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election to 8%. Sub-committee representative Patty Garcia (San Juan) said that a key argument in favor of this change is that the 15% level is higher than that required by any other county in the State. The seven other charter counties have signature requirements ranging from 7% to 10%, while the remaining 21 counties utilize the 8% threshold established by the State.
The second recommendation put forward by the sub-committee would either remove a clause in the charter that requires initiatives to identify revenue sources that would fund the measures backed by the initiative. The sub-committee found that this ‘financial limitation clause’ places an unfair burden on the proposers of an initiative by requiring them to also state how the initiative would be funded if enacted.
The sub-committee considered two other issues but did not forward recommendations on them to the full commission. One was the question of regulating the role of paid signature gatherers. Judicial decisions at the State and Federal level have generally established that limiting the role of paid signature gatherers is a violation of free speech and therefore unconstitutional. The commission asked the Prosecuting Attorney’s office to look into whether there might be allowable ways to regulate the role of paid signature gatherers.
The final issue considered by the sub-committee was whether there might be a way to provide for electronic signature gathering. With input from the County elections office, the sub-committee reached a conclusion that the technology is not currently available to provide for this.
The sub-committee recommendations and the findings supporting those recommendations are available online at https://www.sanjuanco.com/DocumentCenter/View/22870/04282021-Iniative—Referendum-Findings?bidId=.
At their May 5 meeting, the CRC heard reports and considered recommendations from two sub-committees. First on the agenda was the Elections Sub-committee, followed by the Governance Sub-committee.
Elections Sub-committee representative Tony Ghazel reviewed six topics that the sub-committee had discussed. Two of these had to do with the process of electing future charter review commissions, one with the possibility of adding an age eligibility requirement for election to the County Council, one with the possible revision of language in the current Charter to clarify potential ambiguities. The sub-committee also considered alternatives to the current process of electing the County Council. For each of these topics, the sub-committee recommended making no changes to the current Charter.
The final topic on the Elections sub-committee docket was ranked choice voting (RCV). Although the sub-committee offered no recommendation in favor of or against RCV, this topic has been the focus of considerable public attention and the full commission agreed to consider it separately at an upcoming meeting.
The Elections sub-committee report is available at https://www.sanjuanco.com/DocumentCenter/View/22759/CRC-Elections-2021-summary-report-05052021?bidId=.
The Governance sub-committee proposed several minor language changes to the charter. Much of this discussion was also informed by a memorandum from the County Prosecutor’s office that was emailed to the Commission shortly before the meeting began. It was apparent that at least some of the commissioners found the discussion to be convoluted and confusing. In abstaining from voting on one of the proposed language changes, Commissioner Richard Grout (San Juan) said that he was abstaining, “because I’ve lost track of what we’re actually voting on.” By the end of the meeting, three of the recommended amendments to the charter had been addressed, with one additional language change remaining to be considered at a future meeting.
Also remaining is a significant topic that is still being considered by the sub-committee having to do with the possible creation of an Office of Sustainable Tourism within the County to replace the current Visitor’s Bureau. The sub-committee intends to provide a recommendation to the full commission later this month.
One high profile issue that the sub-committee decided to not make a recommendation on was the topic of greater local control and self-governance for individual islands in the County. Committee representative Dave Anderson (San Juan) said that this topic was given careful consideration. He said that the sub-committee concluded that ‘the current charter does not limit islands’ from pursuing greater self-governance if the citizens of that island choose to do so.
The Governance sub-committee report to the full commission is available at https://www.sanjuanco.com/DocumentCenter/View/22938/Governance-5_5_21-Presentation-Proposed-Amendments?bidId=.
Elected v. Appointed Sub-Committee
The Elected v. Appointed sub-committee was charged with reviewing which County officials are currently elected and which are appointed. The sub-committee’s recommendations, which were discussed at the May 6 meeting, were perhaps as notable for what they did not include as for what was actually recommended.
Earlier this year, as the charter review process was getting underway, key questions for the sub-committee included whether to elect rather than appoint the County Manager, whether to appoint rather than elect the County Sheriff, and whether to consolidate the elected offices of County Treasurer, County Auditor and County Auditor. Ultimately the sub-committee recommended that all of these offices remain as they are under the current charter. Sub-committee representative Maureen See (San Juan), said that the sense of the sub-committee on these issues was that each of these offices or departments are functioning effectively and that ‘there was no need to find solutions for problems that don’t exist’.
There was a great deal of thoughtful discussion at the meeting regarding whether the County Sheriff should continue to be an elected position, with advocates on both sides of the issue. Commissioner Bill Appel (San Juan) said that he is strongly in favor of maintaining the office as an elected position because ‘it is important for the Sheriff to know the people of the County’ and that this is more likely if the Sheriff is elected rather than appointed. ‘Appointed Sheriff’s tend to go by the book and sometimes miss the point’ as a result. “It’s the wisdom of the person that is most important.” Commissioner Tony Ghazell (Orcas) added that in his view the Sheriff is more directly accountable to the public if that position is elected rather than appointed, and ‘that’s where the buck needs to stop’ if there are issues that arise.
Commissioner Richard Grout (San Juan) said that he had abstained from voting on this question at the sub-committee meeting but was now leaning towards supporting having the Sheriff be appointed rather than elected, ‘primarily because I think it’s important to have civilian control of the police’. He added that it has been a difficult debate for him because he can see both sides of the issue.
Commissioner Jane Fuller (Lopez) shared her view that she is strongly opposed to the sheriff being an elected position because “it is problematic to have your Sheriff be elected and there not be any civilian oversight the Sheriff whatsoever in the functioning of that office.”
Several other commissioners also shared their perspectives both for and against on this question. After an extended discussion, the commissioners eventually agreed to consider this topic further at a future meeting. Commission chair Kevin Ranker indicated that he has also heard from several commissioners regarding the question of whether the County Manager should be appointed or elected and said that it is possible this topic may come up for additional discussion at a future meeting.
The sub-committee also recommended that county council members be limited to serving three consecutive 4-year terms in office. This recommendation was adopted by the full commission.
With the approaching June 8 deadline for presenting their recommendations to the County Council, the CRC has begun meeting twice a month. Meeting times through late May are 4-6 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10:00 am to noon on Thursdays. Access to future meetings and recording of past meetings can be found on the County’s CRC webpage: https://www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission