CRC's magic number: three

San Juan Island
San Juan Island's Ron Zee keeps track of the wording as San Juan County's Charter Review Commission finalizes its list of recommendations for changes to the structure of county government, Saturday, May 5, at the Grange Hall in Friday Harbor.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter

Three ballot titles for three ballot propositions for three charter amendments, for three council members from three islands.

The number “three” keeps popping up in the deliberations of the San Juan County Charter Review Commission. That’s not counting three more hours of debate by the commission on Saturday about the three ballot titles that Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord must weigh-in on before the package goes to the County Council for final action for the November ballot.

The commission has approved three amendments to the charter passed in 2005. First, the county council would be reduced to three members from the present six. Second, the revised charter would assign executive responsibility to the council, not to a county administrator; the council will appoint a county manager to run day-to-day operations of the various county departments. Third, all meetings of the council, including its subcommittees, must be open meetings: nothing can be done behind closed doors.

The most important message to the voters, according to Lopez/Shaw commissioner Barbara Thomas, is that “we are returning executive responsibility and accountability to the council. During debate over how that amendment will be presented to the voters, Thomas said that “council accountability is what the voters want.”

The commission decided each amendment should be a separate proposition to be placed on the ballot. Each proposition requires a separate ballot title in the form of a question, subject to legal review and possible revision by Gaylord.

Commission Chairman Gordy Petersen said that the prosecutor thinks each amendment should be presented to the voters individually to avoid the “one subject per ballot proposition” state law that has resulted in lawsuits, most recently regarding the liquor privatization initiative passed in 2011 and still in court on that very issue.

But Petersen does not deny that he thinks the “six-to-three” amendment may be the one most likely to pass, providing what he says is a “pragmatic, non-partisan solution to an idealistic experiment that just hasn’t worked.” The ballot title for this amendment was approved quickly with little change.

The second charter amendment, essentially eliminating the county administrator by returning executive authority to the council, was equally important to many commission members.  So important that almost three hours was devoted to debating the wording of the second ballot title.

After the meeting, Petersen said, “San Juan County, the smallest county in the state, needs a manager, not a highly-paid unelected executive” to carry out the policies “of a full-time, three-person county council.”

By the end of the meeting, however, the commission could not agree on the ballot title wording for the second proposition, so they sent three possible  alternatives back to Gaylord for his advice.

“This issue was the most challenging” for the commission,” said commissioner Ron Zee. “Now we must rely on the prosecutor for the legal implications” of the three competing ballot titles.


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