By Angie Ponder
We have seen a flurry of opinion pieces telling us to reject any change to our Home Rule Charter. I support the changes recommended by the Charter Review Commission, and want to focus here on Proposition 1.
Every voter in San Juan County should have an equal voice in the election of every council member whose job it is to represent us. This is a privilege that residents of this county enjoyed from 1873 until six years ago.
The advantage of Home Rule over our old system is stated in the charter's preamble. It calls for greater citizen control over county government. Voters in 2005 approved the "Basic" Home Rule Charter, hoping to accomplish just that. At the same time, an amendment to that document also passed, though approved by a smaller majority of voters. It called for county redistricting.
As a result, the number of districts and number of representatives was increased from three to six. District representatives were no longer elected countywide. These were two major changes, and neither has worked out very well.
We now have a governing body whose members are not accountable to the entire electorate, but only to the voters in each of their small districts. Every voter has proportionally far less representation than they did previously (one-sixth, in fact), and the business of the county is being conducted with less transparency. This was not the original intent of home rule, which is why Prop. 1 is so important.
An even-numbered council of six has proved to be unworkable. Both the council and the public were frustrated when issues were decided by a vote of 3-3. The notion of compromise was itself compromised with the formation of a sort of "gang of three" that would predictably vote as an immovable block. In order to get anything done by majority vote, it became necessary for one other member to vote with that block. The result was that important policy was controlled by the same three members.
While I don't believe that any of our representatives is particularly fond of serving on an even-numbered council, it is clear that some members, candidates, and their supporters, will adamantly defend that model if it will ensure that they don't have to campaign for the support of voters countywide. Most counties in Washington function with a three-member governing body.
The historical division of three residency districts in our county was the result of island geography. Having one representative from each of the main island groups prevents a case in which all council members might live on the same island.
Policy decisions made by the council effect us all. A three-person council ensures that when an issue is specifically local in nature, one member will be particularly attentive to it, while still relying on other council members to resolve that issue.
When each person on the council is elected countywide, each is responsible to residents of all three districts. Any disparity in population numbers between districts is offset when all voters elect all representatives. I want my elected officials to care about getting to know their constituents and to be willing to get out to other islands, talk to people, and win their votes. Representatives elected countywide provide me, and every other voter, the best chance for true representation.
I also want my elected officials to be committed to conducting the county's business openly, but I can't know that they will until after they have been elected. The move from three to six council members diluted the applicability of Washington's Open Public Meetings Act. With three council members, there was some guarantee of transparency under the OPMA because of rules having to do with meetings of a quorum of the governing body. With six members, the law became subject to interpretation.
With a go-ahead from the prosecuting attorney's office, citizens could be, and were, prohibited by some council members from observing subcommittee meetings which should have been open to them. This had not been possible with a three-member council. It was not until after important public policy had been formulated behind closed doors, and subsequently approved in the council, that advice from the prosecutor's office changed.
After five years during which subcommittee meetings of fully half of the council were deemed legal, the prosecutor now advises that the number be reduced from three to two. It is an "opinion," and another attorney might advise differently.
The passage of Prop. 1 will ensure that the degree to which the county's business is conducted openly is not subject to changing legal interpretations or any council member's personal preference for doing business out of the public eye. If transparency in government is important, a three-member council will provide it, where six has not.
The charter calls for periodic review. Ten years will pass before we get the same opportunity to revise it and to make certain that it supports our intent in adopting home rule in the first place.
As San Juan County residents we have more in common with other islanders than we have differences. When it comes to county government, no one benefits by identifying only with his or her own particular island or district.
— Editor's note: Angie Ponder is a resident of Lopez Island