Top stories of 2022

by Colleen Smith, Heather Spaulding, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Kathryn Wheeler

Staff report

At the end of the year, we take a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities. This is part two.

6. Cayou Channel officially renamed to honor Coast Salish leader

It took the U.S. Board on Geographic Names just nine days to approve the renaming of Harney Channel to Cayou Channel — blistering speed for a federal agency accustomed to taking testimony, reviewing documents and deliberating.

On Oct. 2, a celebration was held on water and land in West Sound to celebrate the renaming of the channel in honor of Henry Cayou (1869-1959), a Coast Salish man who is still the only Indigenous person to serve on the county’s Board of County Commissioners. He was also a successful fisherman, a founder of the islands’ electrical utility, and a local postmaster and school board member. The channel formerly carried the name of a 19th-century U.S. Army general known for abusive and often deadly actions toward Black and Indigenous peoples.

The name change was approved on July 5 by the Washington State Board on Geographic Names and on July 14 by the federal agency. It’s the second correction of an offensive or inappropriate name change in the San Juan Islands since 2017, when a bay that carried the name of an offensive slur often aimed at Indigenous women was renamed to Reef Net Bay, in recognition of an Indigenous fishing method that originated in the San Juan Islands.

7. Charter Review Commission sues county, court orders ballot measures included on November ballot

Following a unanimous decision by the County Council Aug. 2 to take no action on proposed County Charter amendments submitted by the Charter Review Commission in December 2021, members of the CRC filed a Petition for Correction of Election Error in Superior Court. The suit alleged the County Council’s decision to take no action was illegal and threatened to deprive the CRC of its role under the charter, depriving voters of their right to vote on the CRC’s four proposed amendments.

The petitioners asked the court to conduct an expedited proceeding to prevent an election error in the printing of the ballots for the upcoming general election, claiming the Court’s intervention was necessary to ensure that the general election ballot included the four proposed charter amendments referred to the ballot by the CRC.

The petition stated that pursuant to the San Juan County Charter, once the CRC referred these measures to the County Council, the Council had ministerial responsibility to refer the measures to the ballot. Petitioners stated the failure to do so was illegal and threatened to deprive the CRC of its role under the Charter and deprive voters of their right to vote on the CRC’s four proposed amendments.

Following an expedited court hearing on Aug.15, by the legal counsel for both the petitioners and respondents, Island County Superior Court Judge Christon C. Skinner found that the County, County Council, and County Auditor erroneously refused to refer the four proposed charter amendments to the auditor for inclusion on the November 2022 general election ballot. Skinner presided over the case because Superior Court Judge Loring was disqualified due to her and her staff’s involvement in the proceedings with the CRC.

According to the court “The council’s decision not to refer the four proposed amendments submitted in December of 2021 was contrary to the terms of the Charter and amounts to a ballot error that should be corrected.”

San Juan County, the San Juan County Council, and the San Juan County Auditor were ordered by the Court to place the four Propositions submitted by the CRC on the November ballot. Further, the court found that the Council’s decision not to accept the CRC’s Propositions based upon the belief that any further submissions by the CRC after their first submission was “erroneous in the Court’s view, but it was also not the Council’s decision to make.”

Following the court’s decision and order, the San Juan County Auditor’s office took all steps necessary to ensure the Propositions appeared on the November ballot.

While the four ballot measures did in fact appear on the November ballot, all four measures failed to sway enough voters and they all failed to pass.

8. November election leads to changes in county leadership

One thing is for sure in life, and that is change is inevitable. This certainly was the case this year for several elected positions in San Juan County.

There’s a new sheriff in town. A new prosecuting attorney. A new auditor, along with a new county commissioner. Each of them brings new blood, new ideas, and fresh enthusiasm to their newly elected positions.

Sheriff-elect Eric Peter brings 27-plus years of broad law enforcement experience and 14 years of supervising law enforcement personnel to the Sheriff’s office. Peter ran a solid campaign for Sheriff, eventually besting current Sheriff Ronald J. Krebs by a slim margin of 53.07% to 46.61% of voters.

Prosecutor-elect Amy Vira has some big shoes to fill as she begins her job with the full support and confidence of retiring Prosecutor Randy Gaylord, who is retiring after 28 years in the position. Vira has been Deputy Prosecutor in San Juan County since 2011 and ran unopposed in 2022.

Auditor-elect Natasha Warmenhoven follows in the footsteps of her former boss, mentor, and retiring 16-year veteran Auditor Milene Henley. Warmenhoven served as Chief Deputy Auditor for San Juan County since January 2020, and ran unopposed in 2022.

County Commissioner-elect Jane Fuller also follows in the footsteps of long-time Lopez Island representative Jamie Stevens, who is retiring after 12 years as District 3’s representative. Fuller’s previous local community involvement was as San Juan Charter Review Commissioner from 2020-2021 before running unopposed for Commissioner.

Several other elected positions in San Juan County went to incumbents who did not face an election challenge in 2022. These included San Juan County Treasurer Rhonda Peterson, San Juan County Clerk Lisa Henderson, San Juan County Assessor John Kulseth, and District Court Judge Carolyn Jewett.

Perhaps the biggest surprises in the 2022 elections were the defeat of the San Juan Island Library District’s efforts to build a new library on San Juan Island, the San Juan County Road Fund Regular Property Tax Lid Lift, along with the defeat of four ballot measures placed on the 2022 ballot by the Charter Review Commission (CRC).

The San Juan Island Library District’s proposition was soundly defeated by voters who felt it wasn’t the right time. The Road Fund Regular Property Tax Levy Lid Lift did not find favor with voters in 2022. And following a controversial last-minute debacle between the CRC and the San Juan County Council, Prosecuting Attorney’s office, and County Administrator’s office, the four measures placed on the ballot by the CRC were defeated in no uncertain terms.

Voter turnout for the 2022 general election was 78.25% with 11,458 ballots counted from a total of 14,643 registered voters.

9. Sunken Aleutian Isle successfully recovered after 40 days

The Aleutian Isle, a 58-foot-long steel purse seine fishing vessel built in the 1970s, sank within minutes off the western shores of San Juan Island on a sunny Saturday in August. On the day of the sinking eyewitnesses described hearing screams as the vessel disappeared in a matter of minutes. Luckily all crew members aboard were rescued, and no lives were lost.

The boat initially came to rest along the western edge of an underwater shelf at just over 100’ depth, but by morning the vessel had slipped to a depth of over 200 feet, complicating matters considerably since dive operations at such a depth are exponentially more difficult and dangerous.

Immediately following the sinking a large diesel sheen appeared up the coast from the sunken vessel, a few short miles from a large gathering of endangered Southern Resident killer whales who had briefly entered the area unaware of the unfolding tragedy.

Fortunately, the whales were reported returning to the open ocean riding an outgoing tide just as the diesel sheen’s tendrils draped down the coast of San Juan Island where the whales had been just hours before.

Two weeks after the initial sinking professional dive operations vessels and crews from Global Dive & Salvage arrived on scene.

With large barges, cranes, and specialized rescue and recovery equipment, crews anchored directly above the fishing vessel resting precariously on her starboard side overhanging a deep water trench dropping to the icy depths over 700 feet below.

Over the next several weeks divers professionally skilled at deep water dives, along with their support teams, removed loose fishing nets and other debris prior to recovering the vessel.

An ROV was sent down on several occasions to get a better look at the scene, as divers began to make their initial descents.

Each dive lasted for several hours with only an approximately thirty-minute work window available for the diver to actually work before they had to begin a slow, methodical ascent to a waiting decompression chamber at the surface. Divers then spent several additional hours decompressing in the chamber before safely exiting.

Thirty-six days after the Aleutian Isle sank the vessel was successfully lifted to the surface using extremely heavy large cables and straps that had been carefully wrapped and secured around the vessel at points along the length of the boat.

Once raised to the surface the vessel was determined to be too heavy to lift onto an awaiting barge. Hundreds and hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel had to be pumped from the vessel over a period of several days before the vessel was finally lifted onto a barge.

Forty days after the Aleutian Isle sank in Haro Strait, the threat to the pristine island coastline and wildlife had been removed. The entire dive operation took over three weeks and several million dollars to successfully accomplish the task.

While a final report and findings have not been released, the vessel was seen the day before briefly running aground as it left port in Anacortes.