San Juan County Voters Prevail | Guest Column

Submitted by

Sharon Abreu, Orcas Island

Janet Brownell, Orcas Island

Patty Garcia, San Juan Island

Robert O’Connell, Lopez Island

Olivia Roseberry, Orcas Island

Maureen See, San Juan Island

Last week, due to the unlawful actions of our county council, two San Juan County citizens had to file in court to defend our democratic right to vote after the County Council blocked certain Amendments from being on the ballot.

While our county council, County Manager and Prosecuting Attorney suggested they had the right to interfere with our right to vote, Superior Court Judge Skinner ruled this week that the County Council violated the law and that the county must immediately put the Charter Review Commission (CRC) Amendments on the ballot.

Days after the Judge’s decision, the County Council released a statement suggesting they had poor legal advice and were now doing the right thing. It was actually our County Auditor, Milene Henley who – immediately following the Judge’s decision – took the necessary actions to restore our right to vote. It took a Judge ordering the Council to act for them to do so.

The court decision stated that the County council had no authority to make any decision regarding forwarding the amendments to the county auditor.

The Judge also found the county council was deliberately attempting to limit citizens’ ability to question their action due to the timing of their actions, making their decision after the deadline and months after first receiving the Amendments.

In his decision, Judge Skinner wrote:

“The Council waited until August 2, 2022 to make its decision to reject the last four proposed amendments. This decision was based on the Council’s erroneous conclusion and belief that the CRC members’ term of office ended in July of 2021 and that any further submissions were procedurally invalid. Not only was this conclusion erroneous in the Court’s view, but it was also not the Council’s decision to make.”

The Judge added:

“Clearly, the timing of the Council’s decision was intended to substantially limit the CRC’s ability to respond in an effective and timely manner.”

Alyssa Koepfgen, attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “We are very pleased with the court’s decision today, which protects the citizens of San Juan County’s right to vote and condemns the County Council’s attempt to arbitrarily interfere with that right. The court ultimately agreed with our position that not only did the Council commit a legal error by failing to place the Commission’s proposed amendments on the ballot, but that it also acted inequitably by failing to say anything to the Commission for over a year even though it certainly knew the Commission was continuing to meet and would be submitting a second set of proposed amendments. This is a decision which promotes transparency and fairness, as well as the rule of law.”

Due to the actions of our county officials, the only choice was to go to court. But justice prevailed. With their right to vote restored, San Juan County citizens can decide for themselves if they support the Charter amendments this November.

Whether one supports the proposed amendments or not, having the ability to vote on them is our fundamental democratic right which must be protected. It’s our hope that we can all learn from this and work together in a more transparent and public manner that allows each of us the ability to engage with our government in a meaningful way.