By Minor Lile
The Feb. 3 meeting of the Charter Review Commission provided an initial opportunity for the public to learn what is on the commissioners’ minds as the review process begins to gather momentum.
The meeting began with a presentation by San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord reviewing various aspects of the charter review process, including the duties and responsibilities of the commission and the timeline for bringing any proposed charter amendments to the public for a vote.
Following Gaylord’s remarks, the remaining hour and a half of the two-hour meeting were dedicated to the consideration of a summary list of “Initial Suggestions for Potential Charter Amendments.” The list was composed of ideas that had been submitted by various commissioners prior to the meeting. Because this was an initial compilation of various thoughts and ideas shared by individual commissioners, many of the ideas and subject areas had some overlap with each other and will eventually be consolidated.
The format provided each of the commissioners with the opportunity to briefly share and describe their ideas, with limited additional discussion or debate. The suggestions that were presented were loosely organized into 13 different subject areas. The ideas ranged in magnitude from establishing a new Office of Climate Policy for the county to simply clarifying some of the language found in the current version of the charter.
It was apparent that some of the ideas may not be legally allowable or fall within the scope of the county charter, the essential purpose of which is to establish the basic parameters by which the county government is structured. The Gaylord’s office will provide guidance on these concerns throughout the review process.
A core set of issues that many commissioners expressed interest in were related to reviewing which public officials are elected and which are appointed to office. Specific positions that were identified included the San Juan County Sheriff and the Prosecuting Attorney. During the meeting, it was noted that while Washington state law governing county home rule does allow for the appointment of the sheriff, the law specifically states that the prosecuting attorney must be an elected position.
A key topic that the commission is likely to be looking at closely is around the role and responsibilities of the county manager, including whether that should be an appointed or elected position. A related question that was raised by commissioner Dick Grout, San Juan, is whether it might be preferable for the county manager, rather than the county auditor to be responsible for overseeing the budgeting process. A suggestion from commissioner Maureen See, San Juan, was that there might be some benefit in consolidating the county auditor and county treasurer positions. Both the auditor and treasurer are currently elected officials. Two commissioners – Tom Starr, San Juan, and Janet Brownell, Orcas — suggested that term limits for elected officials also be considered.
Several commissioners expressed interest in embellishing the preamble and other elements of the charter to better establish a vision for what they hope the county government might aspire to in addressing the many environmental, economic and social challenges facing the county.
“Remarkable and as yet unknown changes will occur in this county, our state, the country and the globe over the next 10 years at an unthinkable pace, and there will be significant implications for the county,” commissioner Jane Fuller, Lopez, said.
Other commissioners noted that this visioning process might more appropriately be conducted through the county’s comprehensive planning process.
A few commissioners expressed support for the establishment of an Office of Climate Policy within the county that would take the lead in responding to and coordinating the county’s response to the climate crisis and other significant environmental issues. Some felt that this should be an elected position, while others thought it might be appointive. Commissioner Bob O’Connell from Lopez said that in his view this office should have the ability to veto actions by the county council that were found to be detrimental to the environment.
Additional ideas that were presented included a call for the elimination of gender-specific language in the charter, consideration of the appointment or election of an ombudsperson, adjustments to the citizen initiative process that would ease its use, establishing mechanisms that would allow individual islands to have greater autonomy from the county, and converting the visitors bureau to a county department rather than an independent organization. Starr, San Juan, said that he and others in the Republican Party would also like the commission to consider adding language to the charter clarifying the guidelines around observing vote tabulation procedures.
Many of the commissioners indicated that the ideas they were sharing were not just their own, but were based on numerous conversations with friends, neighbors and other island residents who had approached them. Toward the end of the discussion, Lopez commissioner Liz Lafferty noted this and added that there was a benefit to allowing room for ideas that will emerge during upcoming commission meetings as well as the public meetings that will soon be scheduled.
Somewhere between five to seven members of the public attended some portion of the meeting. During the public comment period, Lopez resident Julienne Battalia shared her perception that because the charter “is the county’s constitution,” consideration should be giving to including a bill of rights that affirms both the rights of the people as well as the rights of nature, based on the “realization that we are a part of the whole and not separate from nature.” Orcas residents Caitlin Leck and Keira Axelrod expressed their support for incorporating inclusive language into the charter and also adding language that addresses both climate issues and the environment.
As the meeting drew to a close, the commissioners agreed to continue the discussion at their next meeting from 4-6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 10. Information on how to join the meeting is available from www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission.