By Minor Lile
In four meetings held over the course of the last two weeks, the Charter Review Commission has continued to review subcommittee recommendations for changes to the San Juan County Home Rule Charter. Town hall meetings have been scheduled from 4-6 p.m. on June 1 and 2 to provide the public with an opportunity to comment on the work of the commission.
Through May 20, the CRC has approved 19 potential changes to the charter. There is a possibility that some of the recommendations that have received initial approval from the commission will be dropped from the list of proposed changes that will be presented to the San Juan County Council on June 8.
A summary of the proposed changes, as well as the sub-committee reports and findings supporting each recommendation, are available at .sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission. Information on attending the June 1 and 2 virtual town halls can also be found at that location.
Several measures that would significantly change the county charter have been approved by the full commission. These include recommendations that would require the county to create an Office of Climate Policy with an independently elected Climate Commissioner; form a Climate Review Commission; establish a Justice, Equity and Inclusion Commission; and establish an Office of Public Advocacy within county government “for the purpose of receiving, accepting, and responding to public inquiries.”
Perhaps the most controversial of the proposals that have been adopted is the creation of an elected position to address the climate. The discussion of this topic took place at the commission’s May 12 meeting. After a presentation of the proposal by Commissioner Anne Marie Shanks (Orcas Island), Commissioner Tony Ghazel (Orcas Island) raised several questions about what the authority of the office would be. The subsequent dialogue revealed that there was further work to do in defining what the powers of the office would be and how it would interact with the county council and other county officials. Questions were also raised about where the funding for the position would come from and whether there was sufficient justification for adopting this significant change to the charter.
There were also some pointed questions raised by Commissioner Olivia Roseberry (Orcas Island) as to whether an unnamed member of the commission was supporting the creation of this position, “Because they may be trying to create a position for themselves.” Eventually, Commission Chair Kevin Ranker said that he had been asked the same question and that he wanted to “say for the record that I have no intention of running for this position, so if that’s the scuttlebutt that’s going around, that’s not a reality.”
During the public comment period that followed, former San Juan County Councilmember Rick Hughes said that he “cannot support an elected position and will probably take a fairly active role in opposition.” Councilmember Cindy Wolf also spoke during the public comment period. Without indicating whether she supported the proposal or not, Wolf said that an awareness of climate change and environmental preservation should “permeate every decision that is made within the County.” At the CRC town hall meetings that were held in March, Wolf questioned the need for an independently elected Climate Commissioner.
Based on the feedback that was received both during and after the meeting, the Climate and Environment subcommittee is continuing to work on the proposal with the aim of providing clearer answers to the questions that have been raised at a future meeting of the commission.
In addition to considering proposed changes to the county charter, the CRC also approved forwarding three recommendations regarding tourism to the county council. In describing the basis for these recommendations, Commissioner Janet Brownell (Orcas Island) said that “the county council is ultimately accountable to the voters and residents of the islands and they must deal with the pressing need to balance support for the quality of life and the needs of its constituents with concerns for the local economy.”
The first recommendation encourages the council to proceed with the creation of a Tourism Management Plan that would “take into account feedback from a broad spectrum of stakeholders, not just business/tourist interests” and include “baseline data from which metrics can be created.” The CRC is also recommending that responsibility for tourism promotion be moved from the San Juan County Visitors Bureau (which is an external organization) to within the county when the current contract with the visitors bureau expires in December 2022. The third recommendation is that funds collected by the county lodging tax should be reapportioned to provide more support for seasonal worker housing and maintaining existing county-owned tourism infrastructure.
The commission also further considered the question of whether the office of county sheriff should be an elected or appointed position and voted unanimously at their May 19 meeting to keep it as an elected position. Current San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs participated in the discussion.