By Minor Lile
In an effort to solicit input from the wider community, the San Juan County Charter Review Commission (CRC) has scheduled two town hall meetings for this coming weekend. The first meeting will be held Friday, March 12 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., followed by a second meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 13.
According to commission chair Kevin Ranker, the purpose of the meetings, ‘is to garner public input’. Ranker added, “My hope is that community members will feel like they have a real opportunity to weigh in on the issues we’re talking about” and also raise any other issues that should be considered by the commission.
The current 18-member commission was elected in November and includes representatives from San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands. The purpose of the commission, as required by state law, is to conduct a periodic review of the San Juan County Home Rule Charter. The Charter provides the basic blueprint for how the county government is organized. The last review of the Charter was in 2012, at which time the county council was reduced in size from six members to three.
The commission has been meeting since late January. To date, they have created an initial list of issues to consider and established eight committees that are exploring these topics in greater depth. There are a number of ideas that are under consideration at this early stage in the process.
One topic that has been the focus of a great deal of discussion has been around how the county can better address issues related to the environment and climate change. An idea that has support from several commission members would be “to create an elected position to deal with climate, the environment, sustainability, and resiliency” in the words of Commissioner Anne Marie Shanks.
A related idea that the commission is considering would be to incorporate a ‘Bill of Rights for San Juan County’ into the Charter, including recognition of the rights of nature. This idea has particularly strong support from Community Rights San Juan Islands, a Lopez Island-based non-profit that has provided public comment at several of the commission meetings.
The commission is also reviewing which positions in the county government are elected and which are appointed. Sheriff Ron Krebs will be meeting with the Charter Review Commission next Wednesday to discuss this as it relates to the Sheriff’s department. Last November, King County voters revised their charter to make the Sheriff’s office appointive rather than elective. The Commission is considering a similar recommendation for San Juan County, as well as the possibility of recommending the creation of a countywide commission that would address social justice and equity issues.
The commission is also evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of consolidating certain county departments. The offices under consideration are the county auditor, treasurer and assessor. All three of these departments are currently being led by elected officials. A key question is whether consolidation would result in improved efficiencies or cost savings.
Another significant topic that is on the table but has yet to be considered closely is revising the charter to enable individual islands to incorporate and thus secure greater autonomy from the County. This is an issue that goes right to the heart of the role and purpose of the county government. To some degree, each of the islands in San Juan County does have its own culture and interests. On the other hand, there are also clear benefits in having the capacity to address certain issues on a county-wide basis.
This possibility that each of the islands could go their own way to a greater extent than they do already goes to a concern raised by County Manager Mike Thomas when he met with the commission on Feb. 24. Thomas was asked by Commissioner Kyle Davies what most scares him in terms of the county’s future. In response, Thomas said, “I want this county government to be meaningful to the people that live here. I think that that there’s been a lot of progress towards that and I want that to keep going. What would scare me is that we lose that connection and we have a county government that is in no way connected to the folks that it serves. That’s what scares me.”
Those who have a view on these or any other issues related to the way county government is organized should plan to participate in one or both of the upcoming Town Hall meetings. Testimony will be limited to approximately three minutes per person. Written testimony may also be provided.
Information on accessing the meetings, which will be conducted on Zoom, is available through the Charter Review Commission’s website: www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission.