Lawsuit over charter changes resurfaces at state appellate court

Do San Juan County voters and county council candidates receive unequal treatment in countywide elections because the population of the three county legislative districts, also known as “residency” districts, are decidedly unequal in size?

A lawsuit filed on the heels of the November 2012 election, in which changes to the county home-rule charter reduced the size of the council from six to three elected officials, contends that they are. And that lawsuit and its list of allegations have yet to be resolved.

San Juan County was back in court this week to defend its unequal-sized residency districts and handling of the three Charter Review Commission-backed ballot propositions that, among other items, reshaped the county council and the manner by which council candidates are elected.

The lawsuit also contends that each of the three proposed charter amendments put before the voters back in 2012 ran afoul of the state so-called “subject and title rule” because all three addressed more than a single topic.

Legal arguments in the case of Carlson, et. al versus San Juan County began Monday before three justices at the state court of appeals in Seattle.

Should her clients prevail, Friday Harbor attorney Stephanie O’Day is unsure about what remedy the court might choose to impose. The case could be sent back to San Juan County Superior Court, where the lawsuit was rejected by Judge John M. Meyer of Skagit County about a year ago.

“My hope would be that the court would admonish the county on the subject and title clause,” said O’Day, who acknowledges that it is unlikely the court would order a return to a 6-person council.

“I think there’s too much water under the bridge for that at this point.”

Still, she would like to see residency districts redrawn so that they would be more equal in size.

But that may prove an uphill battle, at least as in the eyes of the county legal team.

In an earlier interview, Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord noted that the residency districts established by voter-approved changes to the charter are authorized by state law under an exception and statue tailored in Olympia primarily for San Juan County that dates back to 1982.

Those districts mirror what was in place before voters approved the Home Rule charter in 2005 and the three districts were divided into six to accommodate a 6-person council.

The lawsuit contends, for example, that the odds of being elected to the county council for anyone residing in the Lopez/Shaw district, population of 2,753, are three times greater than for anyone 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.

Gaylord previously noted, however, that a state attorney general opinion, issued in the early 1990s, backs that state statute that 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 shortly after the lawsuit was first filed. “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.”

After arguments are aired Monday, in which each side has 10 minutes to present its case, O’Day said it could be months before a decision is issued by the appellate court.


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