Legal challenge launched against charter changes
December 11, 2012 · Updated 3:16 PM
By Scott Rasmussen, Journal editor
Three islanders are challenging the legality of voter-approved changes to the county charter, as well as state law, in a lawsuit filed last week in a Skagit County courtroom.
Filed Dec. 4 by Friday Harbor attorney Stephanie O’Day, on behalf of Jeffrey Bossler of Orcas Island, San Juan’s Michael Carlson and Jerrold Gonce of Lopez, the lawsuit contends, among other allegations, that because the three legislative districts created by Proposition 1 are “grossly unequal” in population that voters and county council candidates residing in those districts will be treated unequally if countywide council elections, also ushered in by Prop. 1, become the norm.
“The grossly unequal district sizes established by Proposition 1 result in disparate and unequal treatment of San Juan County voters,” the lawsuit asserts. “The change in county government caused by this measure results in differential treatment of citizens within each district of the county.”
For example, the lawsuit notes that the odds of being elected to the county council for anyone residing in the Lopez/Shaw district, with a population of 2,753, are three times greater than they are for anyone who resides in the district that compromises San Juan Island and its outer islands, with a population of 7,662. In addition, the suit contends that the combination of unequally sized districts and countywide elections violates a citizen’s constitutional right to equal representation by “diluting” the number of votes cast for a council candidate running from their respective districts.
Though unequal is size, Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord counters that the legislative districts established by Prop. 1, or re-established, are authorized by state law under an exception and a statue tailored in Olympia primarily for San Juan County that dates back to 1982. The districts mirror those that were in place before voters approved the Home Rule charter in 2005, which carved those three districts into six to accommodate a 6-person council, he adds.
Moreover, Gaylord points to a state attorney general opinion, issued in the early 1990s, that backs that state statute which allows for legislative districts of unequal populations in a county made up entirely of islands and with a population of under 35,000.
“An attorney general opinion carries a great deal of weight in the legal realm,” he said. “One of the prime arguments in the case is that they’re trying to invalidate a state statute that’s been in effect for more than 30 years.”
He added that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a number of occasions that countywide, or “at-large” elections, are consistent with the constitutional guarantee of “one-person, one-vote”.
Backed by the Charter Review Commission and approved by voters Nov. 6, propositions 1, 2 and 3 took effect following certification on Nov. 27 of local election results. In addition to seeking to have each proposition declared invalid and overturned, the lawsuit asks for a temporary injunction that would put on hold any proposition-related changes or proceedings, such as the upcoming 3-day filing period – Dec. 12-14 – for county council candidates.
Along with changes brought by Prop. 1, which replaces the 6-person council with three full-time legislators, Prop. 2 handed authority of day-to-day county operations to the council, and replaced the position of county administrator with a county manager whose duties will be determined by the 3-person council. Prop. 3 ensures that all council meetings are publicized and open to the public, except for those meeting criteria of a “closed session”.
The lawsuit also maintains, among its seven allegations, or “causes of action”, that each of the three charter amendments ran afoul of state law because all three addressed more than a single topic. It also contends that Proposition 1 violates state law because three entirely new council members could take office at the same time, and because not all those positions are slated for a full 4-year term.
Gaylord doubts those claims will carry enough weight for any of the propositions to be overturned.
“The charter review commission was charged with looking at big topics and with smaller ones, and they were very careful in how they went about it,” he said. “That’s why there were three amendments, not just one, that people voted on.”