After San Juan County Council members, county staff and the Prosecuting Attorney went into executive session on Aug. 2, the council voted to not put four charter review amendments on the upcoming ballot.
San Juan County Council chair Christine Minney cited historical information about the process by which the council had previously received six proposed amendments from the San Juan County Charter Review Commission — a duly elected body of citizens representing San Juan County — on July 13, 2021.
At that time, the council voted to forward the proposed amendments to the auditor for placement on the November 2021 ballot. Minney explained that following the November election, on Dec. 14, the council received four additional ballot measures and eight county council recommendations, along with a resolution requesting the ballot measures be put on the November 2022 ballot.
The four propositions were: Establishing a New Position of Public Advocate for the Purpose of Helping Citizens Navigate the San Juan County Systems; Amending language in the County Charter to provide clarification regarding budget provisions for the Charter Review Commission (CRC), staff support requirements, and further resolution regarding the term length, procedures and duties of the CRC, and the role of the Prosecuting Attorney; Amending the current voting rules to include Ranked Choice Voting; and Amending Signature Requirements Concerning Initiatives and Referendums.
The eight recommendations included: Consideration of the San Juan County Community Values in all Legislative, Executive and Administrative Actions; Concerning Public Access to County Financial Information; San Juan County’s Personnel Manual (Section 8.20 Exemptions) should apply to all employees of San Juan County whether elected or appointed; Ensure Transparency and Community Participation on the Law and Justice Council; Improve the process and transparency for Citizen Appointments; Creating a more sustainable Tourism model that benefits all residents, communities and the environment; Concerning making Public Records available; and Non-Discrimination Section of the Charter.
During the Aug. 2 meeting, councilperson Jamie Stephens made a motion that the second batch of proposed amendments “does not conform with the procedural requirements of the San Juan County Charter and we will not be taking action to send these proposals to the auditor for placement on the November ballot.”
Councilperson Cindy Wolf seconded the motion. During a discussion of the motion, she added, “I would like to be clear that I support ranked choice voting and I very much look forward to the time when it is a possibility in the state of Washington. But I do agree with council’s conclusion regarding procedure.”
Council voted unanimously to not take any action. With that, so ended the discussion by council, but certainly not for many members of the commission and the public.
Several members of the CRC, including Commission Chair Kevin Ranker and Commissioner Sharon Abreu, wrote strongly worded editorials insisting the council forward to the auditor the CRC’s proposed second round of propositions and recommendations. In their editorials, the authors accused the council of running out the clock and claimed the council’s actions, or lack thereof, “threaten to deny thousands of voters here in San Juan County the right to vote.”
Questions have arisen by many about what “procedural requirements” were not met. Others question the timing of the vote on the very day the council was to submit the CRC’s recommendations to the auditor’s office to be placed on the ballot in November. Many members of the CRC questioned why the council sat on the proposed measures for more than seven months without any public discourse or discussions with members of the CRC.
While written advice provided by Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord during the executive session is not available, he stated that submitting amendments in two batches was “original and new, and they (the CRC) recognized there could be challenges if they submitted them separately. Challenges they tried to address. But the irregularities are genuine. They (the council) were acting appropriately. The council motion makes no mention of the measures themselves.”
Many on the CRC feel much of the confusion started early on in the process.
At one of the first meetings of the CRC, Gaylord laid out the “road ahead” in a PowerPoint presentation on Feb. 6, 2021. One slide states, “the work must be completed before the term expires on December 31 (2021),” and “the CRC can submit amendments in two installments.”
However, in later public meetings with the CRC held in May 2021, Gaylord reversed that decision and advised the CRC against submitting two batches.
Further adding to the confusion is the county’s website. On the CRC homepage of the site, there are references to both the 2021 and 2022 ballots, which include the four additional proposed amendments and eight recommendations submitted by the CRC in December 2021.
According to the county website, the commission began work on Jan. 21, 2021, and completed it on Nov. 29, 2021. During that time the commission submitted six proposed amendments to the council that county residents ultimately voted on during the general election in November 2021. On Dec. 13, 2021, the CRC submitted four more proposed amendments and eight council recommendations, finalizing their work.
A majority of the members of the CRC were under the impression they were to continue the process until they had finalized their work and submitted it to the council. According to the County Charter Section 9.20 (e) – Election Procedures and Period of Office, “the term of office shall be the shorter of one (1) year or when final recommendations are submitted to the Legislative Body [County Council] for referral to the voters.”
“As far as we can tell the council didn’t have any right to decline to take action,” says Maureen See, an elected member of the commission. “According to the charter, our recommendations go directly to the council which is then forwarded to the auditor for inclusion on the ballot. It makes no mention of their ability to change that process. We’re an elected body. We are responsible to the citizens, and we are the citizens. We’re discouraged that the county weighed in like they have.”
Some on the commission, however, felt the first round of proposed amendments submitted to the county council by the CRC was the end of the process and the commission.
“This is not about the contents of the four proposals, they may be supportable by the voters,” stated Commissioner Tony Ghazel. “It is about the correct way to follow the current charter and proper procedure in a democracy. The public and the San Juan County Council still can garner support and present these to the voters in any November election that they choose. I and others on the 2021 CRC and some of the members of previous CRCs with whom we talked, believe that the term of office ends when the CRC submits to the council, one or more proposals in final form and ready to be placed on the next November ballot of their year in office. In our view that would be the San Juan County Council July 13, 2021 meeting for the November 2021 election.”
He continued, “So this angst, in my humble opinion, that is directed at the San Juan County Council is misplaced and ought to be directed at the misunderstanding of process language during the CRC deliberations.”
Added See: “How did they get to this decision? The prosecuting attorney’s office worked with us well into the winter (of 2021). And why drag it on past the filing time? When did the prosecuting attorney’s office discuss this with council? And don’t you think the council would have spoken to us?”