A public hearing has been scheduled for the removal of San Juan County Planning Commissioner Steve Smith of Orcas Island. It is set for May 17 at 9:15 a.m.
“There are legal requirements to remove a planning commissioner … and I believe we have crossed that barrier,” San Juan County Council member Cindy Wolf told her fellow commissioners on April 19.
The planning commission is made up of volunteers to serve as an advisory body to San Juan County Community Development. These volunteers typically serve four-year terms. Smith’s term is currently set to expire in the year 2024.
The commission has been working long hours to complete its recommendations for the comprehensive plan. Those recommendations must be turned over to the council within a certain time frame, according to Wolf, so that the council may complete a review and schedule public hearings.
During an April 15 planning commission meeting, Smith expressed concern that county water providers had not had input, and stated he could not recommend approving the 19 policies set in the comprehensive plan’s water element without that input. Other commissioners agreed. Smith also stated that the Clean Water Advisory Board seemed to show a great deal of concern for contaminated water draining into the sea, however, there was not enough attention being paid to the water that islanders consume.
During the April 19 county council meeting, Wolf stated she had received complaints about Smith’s comments during the planning commission’s discussion on April 15, including from members of the Clean Water Advisory Committee.
Other complaints included Smith stating that the water associations were not consulted; that he was warned twice verbally about discourteousness; inaccurately stating that water use isn’t tracked; spending four hours talking about the water element, which was longer than the staff expected and was an inefficient use of resources; wanting to rewrite the water element; and that members of the Clean Water Advisory Committee felt insulted.
“[They have been reaching out to me] so they definitely felt the sting,” said Wolf said during the council meeting.
Smith has responded to each of the complaints and noted that he has not been warned by anyone that his comments were a cause for removal from the commission.
“I do not believe that any of my comments in the dozens of hours of planning commission meetings have ever been discourteous. All of the meetings are recorded, and the council and DCD are encouraged to identify the meeting and time of the recordings to support the accusation,” Smith said.
He also told the Journal that as of May 8, he had not been notified of any hearing or complaints against him. Being unsure of the protocol, Smith sent a letter to the council clerk on May 6 inquiring if he would be officially notified of the hearing, if he would be able to attend or speak at the hearing and if those who had complained would speak. He has not received a response.
In reaction to members of the advisory committee feeling insulted, Smith said, “I said that many of the members of the CWAC are looking at the water element from an environmental standard, wanting to make sure that the water that gets to the ocean is clean and that is an essential part of what they do. But, we are missing one essential part and that is input from those who provide clean water to our homes. I would not recommend accepting any of these policies until we have input from the water providers. I complimented Bob Eagan as being an expert water provider for many class B systems. No insult was given.”
According to RCW 36.70.110, after a public hearing, any appointed member of a commission may be removed by the chair of the board (with the approval of the board) for inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.
“It appears that the charge against me is likely the inefficiency clause,” Smith said. “I do not believe that I have caused the commission to be inefficient. I know that the council and the DCD would like the comprehensive plan finished as soon as possible. I, and the other commissioners, have doubled our time from once a month to twice a month in order to help accomplish this. These meetings typically last between four and eight hours.”
Smith added that where a planning department exists, state law requires a planning commission to provide citizen review and advice regarding the comprehensive plan.
“It is important that the commissioners, who are members of the public, feel free to express opinions that differ from the DCD and county council. The county council is welcome to accept or reject the advice the planning commission gives,” Smith said. “I think it is important that we do not populate our commissions and committees with only ‘yes men.’ I think reason and thoughtfulness about different community perspectives should be encouraged. When we silence those who ask questions, we damage the faith and trust that the public has in government.”
Wolf stated that the situation was not fun for anyone and that it is not a political issue.
“The point of an advisory committee is to have differing perspectives,” Wolf said, echoing agreement with Smith. “But you do have to get the work done.”