San Juan County, like Seattle, Takes Aim at Reforming its Charter

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San Juan Island (Image by Esteban Parreno from Pixabay)

San Juan County voters could be voting this fall to create a county climate and environment office and a justice and equity commission by amending the county’s 15-year-old home rule charter. “The charter is like our constitution,” said former state Sen. Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island, charter review commission chair. “The charter is a place where we can be bold and dream big … it gives us the opportunity to be resilient and address these issues head on.” [Ed. A similar effort is under way in Seattle, with Charter Amendment 29, aimed at comprehensive programs for addressing homelessness.]

For it to be successful, Ranker noted, “the community needs to own it.” To that end, the commission held two virtual town halls in March, and two more are scheduled in early June. The findings and recommendations and recordings of meetings of the Charter Review Commission are online.

“The power of the charter, and why I think it is so popular, is that it gives citizens the power of referendum to get rules changed. It gives individuals a chance to be represented,” said Maureen See, a charter review commissioner from San Juan Island. She thinks islanders have become more engaged in their government since the charter was voted in. Ranker said he researched what other counties have done with their charters and “realized we could do amazing, bold things.” 

Review commissioner Sharon Abreu, who moved to Orcas Island from New York City around the time the original home rule charter was approved, joined the review commission because, like Ranker, she thinks the charter could do more. “The charter is really like bones. It can hold up and support a lot,” Abreu said. Two bold ideas that could impact island residents and wildlife are coming from the commission’s Justice and Equity and Climate and Environment subcommittees. 

One of seven

San Juan is one of seven counties among Washington’s 39 that use the home rule charter form of government. The Washington state constitution establishes basic county government as a board of three elected supervisors, with an option for a home rule charter that can expand the number of electoral districts and add a county executive position (as in King County), in addition to other changes — with the approval of the electorate.

In the early 2000s, a group of citizens was concerned that there were not enough districts to represent all the people of San Juan County. “There are over 200 islands in the county,” See said. “In the old-old-old days, people who lived in those outer islands didn’t want to be a part of politics, the county. They just wanted to be left alone.” As the population grew and communication became easier, attitudes changed. 

Following the constitutional process, a group of “freeholders” — registered voters who had lived in the county at least five years — gathered sufficient petition signatures to put the charter on the ballot. In November 2006, San Juan County voters approved its original home rule charter.

Three, to six, to three

The charter organized the county into six districts and expanded the county council to six part-time positions. In addition to adding three new council positions, the charter created a county administrator position to assist the council. While the intentions and concepts behind the council expansion were sound, one result was slower government, according to See.

The charter called for a review five years after adoption and every 10 years after that, with the size of a review commission based on the population of each county district. This year, San Juan, with an estimated population of around 18,000, elected 18 commissioners.

Amendments need to win a majority of commissioner votes before being submitted to the county council, which may then file proposals with the auditor to be put on the November election ballot. The council may change the proposed amendments and return them to the review commission, Ranker said, but noted that no past council has done this. 

The major amendment made after the first review in 2012 was to return the council to three members working full time, redraw the maps to reflect the original three districts and change the county administrator position to a county manager. While most, if not all, of the current charter review commissioners agree that the council and its three districts should remain the same, according to See, the home rule review process allows for a variety of changes. 

Climate action

At a March 17 presentation to the commission, Erika Shook, San Juan director of community development, detailed how the county is working on strategies to reduce greenhouse gases, site new roads away from sea level rise, and focus development in areas not prone to erosion or flooding. Sea level in Friday Harbor rose more than 4 inches between 1934 and 2018, and Seattle experienced a rise of 9.7 inches between 1899 and 2018, the Climate and Environment subcommittee learned. While that trend is projected to continue or even accelerate if not addressed, San Juan is the only charter county in Washington without a climate action plan.

Prompted by a number of comments from islanders saying that current county environmental ordinances are going unenforced, the subcommittee proposed establishment of a San Juan County Office of Climate and Environment, headed by a full-time, independently elected commissioner. The commissioner would act as a resource and draft ordinances for the county council members. The proposal would move enforcement authority from the Community Development department to the Office of Climate and the Environment. 

“We heard consistently, I think at every meeting that we had, people coming forward and saying they are tired of seeing the law just thrown out the window,” said review commissioner Anne Marie Shanks of Orcas Island. Abreu gave credit to county staff working on environmental issues, but said that they are stretched thin, overworked and sometimes unable to fulfill their mandates.

The charter review commissioners voted on May 12 by 11-4 to propose an Office of Climate and the Environment and an elected Climate and Environment Commissioner. Should the proposal make it to the ballot and be voted in, San Juan County would be the only county in the United States to have an elected Climate and Environment official, according to Ranker. “Getting enforcement to happen when code violations are happening is quite difficult,” Lopez Island resident Ben Bomer, who supports creating the new office, commented at that meeting.

Equity and justice

The Justice and Equity subcommittee has proposed the creation of an independent, citizen-led Justice and Equity Commission, Ranker said. Members would be appointed by the county council. “We have been having an active and powerful conversation in regard to justice and equity in this county,” he said. “We need to make sure every single person has the rights to which they are entitled.” 

Although the council has passed resolutions emphasizing justice and equity, Ranker thinks something stronger is needed. “Resolutions are for recognizing someone’s birthday,” he said. As commissioner Shanks commented at the May 12 meeting, resolutions are more of a nice to-do list with no enforcement capability, while ordinances can be enforced. 

The subcommittee also recommended that a Justice and Equity Commission include representatives from Coast Salish Tribes. “The commission will appropriately respect the sovereignty of the Salish tribes and recognize that they are the first people in these islands,” Ranker said. At its May 5 meeting, the charter review commission agreed that each tribe should be contacted to discuss what honoring their island heritage might look like. “Just the formation of the commission can be the forum in which this conversation can begin,” charter review commissioner Jane Fuller of Lopez Island said at the meeting.     

The subcommittee has also discussed how the other subcommittees might address equity and how the county can instill equity among its employees, Abreu said. At a March 10 meeting, San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs spoke to the review commission about how his department’s deputies are working to build and maintain relationships with the islands’ growing population. 

Bricks and mortar

Other charter review subcommittees have been working on less headline-grabbing but nonetheless important aspects of the charter. “The committees I am serving on, I call the brick-and-mortar work, [laying] the foundation for the charter,” See said of the Elections and Operations subcommittees. “Those committees are not proposing serious changes, just tweaks and fine tuning.” Among those: limiting council terms to three consecutive terms; making public records accessible online; lowering the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative.

The Charter Review Commission is scheduled to present its proposals to the County Council on June 8. The County Council will hold public hearings on the proposed amendments.

This story first appeared in the Bellingham-based Salish Current.

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Heather Spaulding is a freelance journalist who lives on San Juan Island. She has written for the weekly Journal of the San Juan Islands, a community newspaper based in Friday Harbor, for five years. She specializes in stories about science and the environment, as well as general human interest.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A snarky question I can’t restrain myself from asking: are there enough non-white people in San Juan County to form a credible Justice and Equity Commission? According to the latest Census data I could find, the county is 94 percent white. May end up being a small committee.

  2. The most important (and pretty much only) useful thing an equity initiative could do would be to open up ALL the beaches to the public. Yes ALL.

    Short of opening up ALL beaches to the public, this proposal sounds like something out of Tom Woolf

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