Top stories of 2021 | Part one

by Colleen Smith, Sienna Boucher and Diane Craig

Staff report

At the end of the year, we take a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. Watch for part two in next week’s edition. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities.

1. Mullis Center endures a year of upheaval

After two years, the turmoil surrounding a lawsuit that embroiled the Mullis Senior Services Center (and senior services committees on Orcas and Lopez) appears to be over.

In 2019, San Juan residents who disapproved of a directive eliminating the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer before weekly meals at the center brought a lawsuit against the San Juan District Committee claiming that the rights of members of the senior center had been violated. Because of the organizational structure of the islands’ senior centers, the lawsuit ultimately affected the district committees on Lopez and Orcas Islands.

Ultimately, the judges ruled each district committee would be required to hold a special election to confirm or elect members to each island’s governing body. All three islands complied with the judge’s ruling and, by the end of November, all centers had fulfilled the court’s decisions.

2. Charter review commission puts forth amendment changes

The Charter Review Commission proposed amendments in the November election after many weekly meetings discussing which amendments they officially wanted to propose. Only two of the six were approved by voters.

The amendments that passed were No. 2 and No. 5. Those that did not pass were: No. 1, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 6.

Charter Amendment Proposition No. 2 was approved at 73.36% and rejected at 26.64%.

It concerns power limits for council members. County Charter council members will now only be able to run for three consecutive full terms of office and after concluding the third term be able to file for the position of County Council member or be appointed to County Council member.

No. 5 was approved at 51.72% and rejected at 48.28%. It is implemented in order to make sure there is no discrimination in the provision of government services.

Charter Amendment proposition No. 1 would have put equal protection on the economy and the natural world. It also would have added an acknowledgment to the Coast Salish people and recognized their ancestral lands and water, and treaty rights, but it was rejected at 51.85%, approved at 48.15%.

Amendment Proposition No. 3 was rejected at 60.92% and approved at 39.08%. It would have provided oversight of the department of Environmental Stewardship regarding the department’s duties to protect the environment.

No. 4 was also rejected by 71.23% and approved at 28.77%. It would have removed the requirement that initiatives provide for new additional sources of revenue needed to implement the initiative.

Lastly, Amendment No. 6 was rejected at 63.56% and approved 36.44%. It would have established a new eleven-member commission appointed by the County Council to provide advice and support on matters concerning justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

The committee still meets weekly and is already brainstorming charter amendments for 2022.

The proposed amendments for 2022 can be viewed at:

3. Taylor retried for murder, found not guilty

A Friday Harbor man whose murder conviction was overturned in August was found not guilty in November after a month-long retrial.

In June 2019, a San Juan County Superior Court jury found Kevin Patrick Taylor, now 58, guilty of both felony murder for the bludgeoning death of his wife Julie Taylor, 56, as well as arson for starting a fire in her car the same night as her murder in 2016. The jury returned special determinations that it was a crime of domestic violence and that the death occurred with a firearm.

Kevin Taylor was sentenced to 20 years in prison. His attorneys filed an appeal after the conviction. In August 2021, the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled that because one of the expert witnesses for the state, psychologist Dr. Jenna Tomei, made statements during direct examination that she was cautioned not to say, the defendant earned the right to a new trial.

“It was a question about Mr. Taylor’s responses to the police officer at the scene and whether they were appropriate (in relation to his state of mind). She said ‘Yes, he asked for an attorney.’ It was immediately caught. The state is not allowed to present evidence or testimony that a person asked for an attorney because it’s a Constitutional right,” explained San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord.

The prosecutor’s office charged Kevin Taylor again with two counts of Murder in the Second Degree-Domestic Violence and one count of Malicious Mischief in the First Degree–DV. The jury selection and new trial took place from Oct. 7 through Nov. 4. The jury was comprised of 12 men and women from San Juan, Orcas and Lopez and deliberated for eight hours.

Kevin Taylor’s attorneys argued that while murdering his wife he was suffering from “postictal psychosis,” which occurs after a cluster of epileptic seizures. They argued he didn’t have his condition properly controlled by medication.

Gaylord said the verdict was “stunning.”

4. Wolverines soccer makes it to state

This year’s fall sports were the first to come back after the pandemic halted the regular seasons. Despite the odds, Wolverine boys and girls varsity soccer came back even stronger than before.

Girls soccer coach Kevin Cullin and boys soccer coach Brett Paul remarked early on that they felt the loss of last year’s season fueled them with even more determination and appreciation for the game this year, even with ferry cancellations.

The coaches proved to be correct as the successful season was evidence of that determination. The boys and girls soccer teams went much later into the season than usual, with the girls ending on Nov. 10 and the boys ending on Nov. 20, after both advancing to the top four in the state championships.

Coach Cullin and Coach Paul said they think making it to state this year has made the players even more intent on success for the 2022 season.

5. Council places moratorium on vacation rentals

After years of listening to resident complaints and concerns about the regulation and proliferation of vacation rentals in the San Juans, the San Juan County council unanimously approved a six-month moratorium on vacation rental permits effective Jan. 13. 2021. At the time of the moratorium, the county had issued 1,002 vacation rental permits, 430 of which were active; 202 listed as inactive, and the remaining 370 listed as non-compliant. The moratorium also stipulated a public hearing would be held within 60 days of the vote.

Following community input at a public hearing, the council altered the moratorium to cover only the urban growth areas of Lopez and Orcas as well as the hamlets of Orcas. As part of the work plan, the council offered to pursue a cap on the number of vacation rentals in the islands.

In July, the council voted to extend the moratorium through Jan. 13, 2022, and considered caps based on recommendations by the San Juan County of Community Development that included: limiting the number of permits throughout the county to 1,200 (from the current 1,002); San Juan would be limited to 520 permits; Orcas, 500. Caps for both San Juan and Orcas would be for houses located outside the Master Planned Resort designation.

Lopez permits would not exceed 174 VR permits or 4% of the number of projected housing units. Vacation rentals are prohibited on Shaw and Waldron. Lastly, the number of vacation rentals on all other islands would be limited to the remaining vacation rentals until the 1,200 cap is reached.

The council will revisit the issue again in early 2022.

6. Challenging year for Washington State Ferries

Perhaps one of the wildest years for the Washington State Ferry system has been 2021, with the pandemic impacting employment and the ferry schedule.

Being an essential service and part of the Washington State Highway system, ferry workers braved the pandemic and continued to show up to work. While things seemed to run fairly smoothly considering the circumstances, it was nearly exactly a year ago that COVID-19 vaccines were introduced to the world. While many have now been fully vaccinated and even have received boosters, there has been controversy surrounding the vaccines. In order to stop the spread of the novel Coronavirus, many places around the world have mandated vaccines. Gov. Jay Inslee mandated all Washington state employees be vaccinated to maintain employment Due to being part of a union, ferry workers were not able to outright go on strike or protest the mandate. When it became official that all WSF employees were to be vaccinated and show proof by Oct. 18, this led to many employees organizing a “sickout” demonstration in order to reject the mandate but also not jeopardize their job too much. This demonstration largely took place on Labor Day weekend — one of the island’s busiest weekends.

At the end of October, 121 WSF employees were either fired or chose to retire early due to refusal to vaccinate. This included captains, deckhands, engineers and chief engineers. Many of these employees received medical or religious exemptions, but WSF did not honor that. To work for WSF, one has to be on-call for up to four years. After the firings of these employees, WSF was able to choose from these on-call workers, but staff shortages still remained.

This staff shortage led to long wait times and reduced schedules. The disrupted ferry schedules impacted deliveries to the island, doctor appointments, time visiting family, and many other critical aspects as the ferries serve as a lifeline to the islands.

As the island enters the off-season, ferry-related issues have calmed down, but there are still changes to come with scheduling.

Photo by Chad Peltola on Unsplash
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