Opposition surfaces against charter review proposals

By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter

As surely as the tide flows in and out of Friday Harbor, opposition is gathering to recommendations endorsed by the Charter Revision Commission.

On July 10, an unenthusiastic San Juan County Council "received" -- but would not "accept" -- the report of the Charter Revision Commission, which proposes to scrap the six-member council and return control of the county to a three-member council, which would be responsible for executive functions by utilizing a "county manager" in place of the present county administrator.

The changes recommended by the CRC were denounced by former freeholder Charlie Bodenstab, who criticized both the process by which the commission conducted its review and its conclusions. Bodenstab suggested that two CRC members, both former freeholders, "had an agenda" to essentially repeal elements of the charter with which they disagreed and that the commission "blew the opportunity to fine-tune the charter", as he and other freeholders had originally intended.

In 2005, voters approved a home rule charter, crafted by the board of freeholders, which changed both the structure and the manner in which county government operates. At that time, voters endorsed both the "basic charter", which separated the legislative and executive branches of county government, installed a system of initiative and referendum, turned elected offices into non-partisan posts and created the position of county administrator.

Voters also approved an amendment to the basic charters, though by a smaller margin, that turned the former three-member county commission into a six-member council, each elected from districts of roughly equal population -- three on San Juan Island, two on Orcas and one from Lopez/Shaw.

The charter also calls for its own periodic review and for creation of a Charter Review Commission to conduct that review. The commission may propose changes to the charter, if warranted, which must be approved by voters to take effect.

The CRC, which began its review in January, concluded its work by issuing eight "Findings" and proposing three charter amendments. Those amendments were presented July 10 to the council and then delivered to Auditor Milene Henley for inclusion on the November general election ballot.

Although the presentation of the amendments was not a public hearing, "citizen access time" on the agenda provided immediate opportunity for opponents of the charter amendments to speak. Commission member Janice Peterson and former Freeholder Charlie Bodenstab spoke.

Janice Peterson, a member of the CRC, joined Bodenstab in criticizing the commission's findings and recommendations. Peterson, who presented the council with a CRC minority report, objected to both the process and substance of the panel's recommendations, saying that many members of the group had decided from the beginning the results that would be reached and did not attempt to accommodate opposing viewpoints in their deliberations.

Bodenstab also criticized the commission for not inviting any former freeholders to offer their perspectives.

Prosecutor Attorney Randy Gaylord offered a resolution for the council to consider, but, after some discussion, Chairwoman Patty Miller amended the suggested resolution to substitute the word "received" for the word "accept," saying that she was concerned that "accept" might be understood as "approve," which the council was not doing.

Interviewed after the meeting, council members Howie Rosenfeld, Jamie Stephens and Lovel Pratt all expressed some version of "let the voters decide," but none expressed support or opposition "at this time," as both Rosenfeld and Pratt put it.

Meanwhile, Councilman Rich Peterson said, "I ran for office because I believed in the charter that the voters approved, and I'm opposed to these amendments."  Peterson said, "I'll speak out" in opposition.

Friday Harbor attorney Stephanie Johnson O'Day, a former freeholder, said she would "work hard" to defeat the CRC's recommendations. In April, O'Day submitted a letter to the County Council reaffirming her support for the charter and noting that, "Unfortunately, the charter had never been implemented correctly… there is no need to change the bones of the charter."

On the heels of the July 10 meeting, O'Day said that a group of charter supporters would meet soon to devise a plan to oppose the commission's amendments. Bodenstab and Janice Peterson both said that they plan to attend.

"We need to go forward, not backward," O'Day said.


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