Proposal for 5-person council election withdrawn

By Steve WehrlyJournal reporter

It looks like voters won't have to decide whether to change the number of County Council members from three to five. At least not in 2013.

Declaring themselves surprised by a negative reaction, councilmen Rich Peterson and Marc Forlenza on April 9 withdrew their proposal to increase the size of the council and a companion proposal to elect council members by district rather than countywide.

The 2005 vote approving the County Charter provided for six part-time council members, replacing the three full-time county commissioners. In 2012, the Charter Review Commission proposed three charter amendments, the first of which changed the number of council members from six to three.

In November, those three amendments were approved by about 55 percent of the voters, setting in motion the April 23 countywide election of three new council members from three "residency districts", roughly corresponding to San Juan, Orcas and Lopez/Shaw islands.

A council of five members is not a new idea for county politics, having been discussed widely in 2005 and in 2012 (and in between). Among other complaints, it was thought that a six-person council would be dysfunctional because four votes would be needed to pass anything, including the county budget.

Before withdrawing his proposals, Peterson repeated an earlier assertion that the council had authority to propose a council of five.

"I thought when Mark and I started this, it was something that would be beneficial to do for the public," he said.

Before the current round of elections began, Peterson said he would not run for the three-person council, believing islanders were better represented and better informed when each district voted only for their own representative on the council.

Forlenza said he was shocked and troubled by the local response to the idea.

"The feedback I've been getting has been rather vitriolic," he said. "I have to emphasize from the bottom of my heart that the intent was to bring democracy in all its forms back to the people."

During earlier debate on the issue and at the April 9 hearing, several council members, Rick Hughes and council Chairman Jamie Stephens, expressed agreement with the idea of a five-person council in concept, but thought it should be accomplished by a citizen initiative rather than a council-proposed referendum.

Because Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord expressed uncertainty as to whether the 2012 charter amendments would permit either the council or the people to change district boundaries, the council passed a motion by councilwoman Patty Miller to consider another possible charter amendment on May 7, clarifying how the charter could be amended.

At least for the foreseeable future, the three council members elected later this month will have the council chambers to themselves.


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