A Community Website by Lopez Island
Started by Madrona Murphy
Oct 17, 2021
Opposed to most of the Charter Amendments
Oct 17, 2021
I’m writing both as a conservation researcher who works on climate change and plant communities in the islands and as a former Freeholder and having served on the previous Charter Review Commission.

Most of the amendments proposed by the current Charter Review Commission (CRC) are well-intentioned but misguided and in my opinion will do more harm than good.

I’m particularly concerned by using the charter review process to create new commissions (Propositions 3 and 6) and by the proposal to remove restrictions on unfunded mandates from the initiative process (Proposition 4).

The purpose of a Home Rule charter is to set out the structure of county government, including such things as which offices are elected, the requirements for candidacy (which need to take our unique geography into consideration), and outlining the powers of initiative and referendum.

It is clear from the proposed amendments that the CRC is trying to solve problems that are not structural but rather about the priorities of government in San Juan County. These are issues that need addressing, but which are better addressed through supporting conservation and equality minded candidates for County Council (and other elected county offices) and through legislation, including initiatives.

I understand the desire to propose a more inclusive and comprehensive preamble to the Charter (Proposition 1), but would like to note that the preamble has no legal impact on activities by county government. I don’t disagree with any of the vision, but including it in the preamble creates the false impression that these issues have been addressed by the amendment of the Charter when in fact the preamble has no binding effect on San Juan County government. You can’t sue the County for violating the preamble.

In contrast to most of the amendments proposed by the CRC, the proposal to impose term limits on County Council members (Proposition 2) is exactly the kind of issue a Charter Review should address. It is structural and directly affects the way in which San Juan County is governed. I think term limits on Council members will be good for our government and encourage more people to run for office. Running in a race without an incumbent is less daunting and allows for candidates to run fully positive campaigns.

I’m very concerned about the negative impacts of creating a 9-member super-committee that elevates members of existing advisory committees to a supervisory role over the County’s Department of Environmental Stewardship (Proposition 3). Here the good intention of the CRC is clear: San Juan County needs to take both climate change and environmental stewardship more seriously and take concrete action to make the County more sustainable and resilient. Unfortunately this is not an issue of the structure of county government, and their solution is profoundly flawed. The creation of a new advisory committee not only gives the County an excuse for not acting on issues they have already identified, it also builds layers of bureaucracy between the voting public and decision making. The structure of this committee (with at least 3 of the members required to already be appointed to particular existing advisory boards: the MRC, the Solid Waste Advisory Board, the Agricultural Resources Committee, and the “Salmon Recovery Committee”) will concentrate influence, and I can easily see how members appointed could use their new position to enrich their own jobs and organizations. With the commission given responsibility for the candidate search and vetting of a department director position a serious conflict of interest is unavoidable. Because the advisory board composition is based on including interested parties, rather than those with expertise (there is no suggestion that it should include climate researchers or environmental engineers for example) I don’t see how elevating some members of these groups to a further advisory committee is going to increase our understanding of and ability to address urgent environmental and climate matters. The most effective means of ensuring action rather than words is to elect well informed, serious County Council members and hold their feet to the fire-as voters. I oppose creating and funding more unelected advisory boards, particularly ones that concentrate power from existing appointments.

Changing how initiative petitions work in San Juan County (Proposition 4) is a clear Charter issue. And I am fully in support of reducing the number of signatures needed for initiative petitions in the county; thus far initiative petitions have been infrequent, but well thought out and the likelihood of this leading to frivolous initiatives seems remote. However the CRC poisoned this amendment by lumping it in with allowing initiatives to avoid identifying funding sources for the legislation they propose. When the Board of Freeholders proposed including initiative, referendum, and recall powers in the original County Charter they were careful to prohibit initiatives that create unfunded mandates; any proposal must identify how it will be funded. It is a fundamental matter of transparency and democracy to know where funds will be drawn from when new legislation is proposed and adopted. It is not surprising that the CRC fails to see this problem, as all of their amendments that would incur costs (the formation of new commissions) also fail to identify how those costs will be paid for.

If you support the values expressed in the proposed preamble, then encoding some of those values in the body of the charter by including an expanded non-discrimination section (Proposition 5) is a better way to see them taken seriously. Adopting a new Charter section makes those values enforceable. However this section only addresses the protected categories that San Juan County may not discriminate against and does not address any of the other values outlined in the proposed preamble.

San Juan County is already authorized to appoint a commission to advise the County on justice, equality, and inclusion but the CRC would like to codify that commission and make it permanent (Proposition 6). The proposed commission is similar to existing advisory boards (unlike the climate and environment super-committee of Proposition 3). While issues of diversity and inclusion are critical to healthy communities, I fear that this commission is a way for the CRC and County to look like it is doing something without taking any real action. It would be more effective to require that all county advisory boards have a diverse and inclusive membership than to create a single committee required to have minority members.

Based on my review of the proposed charter amendments I plan to vote in favor of Propositions 2 and 5 and against Propositions 1, 3, 4, and 6 and to support and aim to elect candidates who are well informed on climate, environment, and diversity, eager to learn from our scientific community, and ready and willing to take substantive action.