Q&A: San Juan County Council Chairman Rich Peterson on the issues

County Council Chairman Rich Peterson - Contributed photo
County Council Chairman Rich Peterson
— image credit: Contributed photo

"I have a gavel and I'm not afraid to use it."

San Juan County Councilman Rich Peterson, San Juan North, is known for not taking the trappings of elected office too seriously. And the above remark, which he's uttered more than once since being elected chairman for 2009 by his council colleagues, has been made with a knowing wink and tongue-in-cheek delivery.

But all kidding aside, the council will face a number of difficult decisions over the next 11 months, such as whether to relocate the solid-waste transfer station on San Juan. With gavel in hand, it'll be Peterson leading the way.

In this Q&A, Peterson weighs in on the County Council, on managing its business, and on some of the issues county government will confront in 2009.

Journal: How does being chairman differ from being a member of the council? Are there perks?

Peterson: Being the chair is more time-consuming and requires additional focus. The chair has extra meetings with staff and should be as conversant as possible with issues before the council.

The trick is to be a participant in the public discussions while simultaneously conducting each agenda item in a fair and inclusive manner – ideally within the allocated time frame. Time management of agendas is a big challenge, especially on issues that inspire emotion.

My preliminary “perk search” has come up empty but I haven’t given up hope.

Journal: Last year, the council met on Mondays more regularly and for longer periods of time, and it met on Orcas and Lopez on several occasions. Are you pleased with these developments, and do you anticipate any others?

Peterson:The Monday meetings have expanded considerably in the two years I’ve been on the council — in length, time, importance and complexity. The meetings on other islands have become more and more expected and accepted. I think all of these changes are positive and appropriate.

Journal: What priorities must the council tackle in the first six months of the year?

Peterson: The council has as Priority No. 1 the budget and this will continue for the first six months and into the foreseeable future. Other priorities are budget-related and have to do with achieving the things we are mandated to undertake and the things we should do even though we are faced with the realities of a shrinking government.

Journal: Late last year, you spoke on several occasions about asking voters for an increase in the amount of property tax revenue that goes to the county. Do you expect the council to pursue such property-tax hikes this year?

Peterson: I think there is likely to be a ballot measure to determine whether a property tax increase is acceptable to county residents. I believe it is inappropriate for the council to continually reduce services — which is the unavoidable reality of living within currently available revenue — without at least giving voters the opportunity to agree or not to fund services they want to retain.

Journal: Council positions, as defined by the county charter, are supposed to be part-time. Has that turned out to be the case?

Peterson: Yes. There are exceptions in any given week when the press of meetings and concentrated analysis on one or more issues or constituent responses may result in a heavy work load, but on balance it is part time.

Journal: Can council in some way affect the future of the state ferry system?

Peterson: The council alone has limited ability to affect the future of the ferry system. Working in concert with the town, other ferry-served communities, and an engaged citizen base can, and has, made a difference.

Journal: Many vacancies exist on numerous advisory boards and citizens’ committees. Any ideas on how to fill those committees?

Peterson: The county has a total of 29 different volunteer committees. We enjoy an amazing amount of success in filling vacancies and will continue to advertise openings and encourage committees to help search for qualified, motivated volunteers.

Most of our current vacancies are for recently formed groups such as the Storm Water Advisory Committee and the Eastsound Planning and Review Committee. I believe we’ll fill them all. My goal is to have balanced perspectives represented on all committees so that critical issues have input from all sides rather than being narrowly considered from special interests.

Journal: Name some priorities that council members must keep in mind in considering whether to relocate San Juan Island’s solid-waste transfer station.

Peterson: I won’t presume to speak for other council members but my priority for considering a solid-waste transfer station relocation is to become fully informed. My current criteria are:

1. Cost.
2. Impacts to neighborhoods, safety, the environment.
3. Long-term functional viability.
4. Relationships with the Town of Friday Harbor.
5. The extent of the negative aspects of each site.
6. Others that will likely crop up as discussions unfold.

Journal: Are there issues on which the county and town can work more closely and, if so, what? If not, why not?

Peterson: I believe the county and town must work more closely on many issues because the problems in need of solutions are largely shared by both entities. Examples are affordable housing infrastructure, solid waste disposal, cost of providing services, office and meeting space availability, technology sharing, consistency of land use regulations, and traffic planning.

Journal: Do you foresee championing any causes, such as leading the Cell Phone Task Force, in 2009?

Peterson: I am very interested in initiating a process to attempt to identify the reasons why the county is involved in so many lawsuits. They are extremely expensive in time, energy and money, and are major obstructions to the constructive efforts of our government. If we can find a way to reduce or eliminate (hopefully most of) them, we will become far more effective.

The issues surrounding budget sustainability are also going to require considerable thought, investigation and discussion.

I believe the entire council will be championing the causes above, and the effort will result in additional meetings of sub-committees or the council as a whole.

I expect the Cell Phone Task Force efforts to produce a result that will satisfy a vast majority of the county. I’m optimistic that the new council will be hard-working, effective, and will conduct itself in a civil, professional manner.

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