San Juan County, the San Juan County Council, and Auditor Milene Henley are being sued in Superior Court for taking no action on a second round of amendments submitted by the San Juan County Charter Review Commission.
Following a unanimous decision by the county council Aug. 2 to take no action on the proposed County Charter amendments submitted by the CRC back in December 2021 Maureen See and Sharon Abreu filed a Petition for Correction of Election Error Tuesday, Aug. 9. See and Abreu are members of the CRC.
The suit alleges the county council’s decision was illegal and threatens to deprive the CRC of its role under the charter and deprive voters of their right to vote on the CRC’s four proposed amendments.
In question are the elected CRC representative’s terms of office, the number of submissions they may put forward during their process, what are considered final deliverables, who decides the answers to these questions, and should the county let voters decide the fate of their four measures.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The county auditor is tasked with preparing the ballots for the general election and that takes time and money.
But first, the court must decide the fate of this petition. That’s no easy matter because the petitioners submitted a Notice of Judicial Qualification disqualifying Superior Court Judge Kathryn Loring due to her and her staff’s involvement in the proceedings with the CRC. Additionally, her husband Kyle Loring served as a contracted attorney for the CRC and likewise is disqualified.
Since receiving the case, Superior Court staff this week were seeking to expedite the suit while also finding a visiting judge to take the case, which they did Friday. The court held a brief session Friday with Island Superior Court Judge Christon Skinner, who acknowledged an “unusual preceding, certainly.”
During Friday’s brief hearing the court learned that auditor Milene Henley had yet to be served due to her absence in the office, so neither she nor her representative were present. In addition, Deputy Prosecuting Attorneys Jon Cain and Amy Vira representing the county could not confirm the county council members were served, since they are a political body and not individuals, stating the county administrator would be the likely recipient but no members of the council were present.
Judge Skinner further acknowledged that once the affidavits have been filed the court must hear and decide such petitions not later than five days after the filing, excluding weekends, setting the date and time of the hearing for 3 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15.
The petitioners asked the court for an expedited proceeding to prevent an election error in the printing of the upcoming general election ballots. According to the petition the court’s intervention is necessary to ensure that the general election ballot for San Juan County is corrected to include the four proposed charter amendments referred to the ballot by the CRC.
The petition states that pursuant to the San Juan County Charter, once the CRC referred these measures to the county council, the council had ministerial responsibility to refer the measures to the ballot. Petitioners state the failure to do so was illegal and threatens to deprive the CRC of its role under the Charter and deprive voters of their right to vote on the CRC’s four proposed amendments.
Further, the petition states the law is well established that when the Charter says the council “shall” place a measure on the ballot, it (the council) has no discretion to do otherwise. If a government believes the measure is improper, it is required to first fulfill its ministerial duty and then file a lawsuit to seek an injunction. It cannot put itself into the judge’s role and independently obstruct a measure’s path to the ballot.
The petitioners seek to stop the council from arguing the CRC could not submit its recommendations in two installments when the prosecuting attorney explicitly advised the CRC that it could submit measures to the voters for 2021 and 2022 — to avoid overwhelming voters.
Furthermore, the petition claims the council’s decision not to put forth the final installment of recommendations was illegal and invalid under the Open Public Meetings Act since the council held all of the key discussions in secret.
The petitioners are requesting the court issue a judgment declaring the defendants violated the OPMA; declare the council’s decision is null and void; require they take all actions necessary to place the CRC’s proposed charter amendments on the November 2022 ballot; require the county to disclose to the public the nature and contents of their deliberations unlawfully held in executive session; award the petitioners with reasonable litigation expenses; and grant additional relief as the court deems just and proper.