August 12, 2021
Community Voices / San Juan County to vote on climate, environment, equity, justice amendments to county charter
Kevin Ranker

Establishment of a Justice, Equity and Inclusion Commission to provide advice and support to San Juan County government is among the first issues the San Juan Charter Commission is putting before voters; at left, a set of signs posted on Lopez Island in 2020 memorialized Black men and women who died in police custody. (Salish Current photo © 2020)

August 12, 2021
Community Voices / San Juan County to vote on climate, environment, equity, justice amendments to county charter
Kevin Ranker

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[Editor’s note: On May 21 Salish Current reported on the home rule charter review underway in San Juan County (‘Bold’ ideas around equity, environment proposed as San Juan reviews its county charter). We published on July 30 a link to a minority report written by four members of the county Charter Review Commission and sent to the county commissioners. The charter amendments will be going to voters in November.]

The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

— Once in a decade the voters of San Juan County have an opportunity to review and, more importantly, improve their own government. This unusual self-governing opportunity exists in only seven of 39 Washington state counties who possess the power to periodically elect a commission to review its county charter.

The San Juan County Charter was designed to give the greatest authority possible to the people, stating that, “The power of the County shall be liberally construed; it is intended that this Charter confer the greatest power of local self-government on the people of San Juan County consistent with the State Constitution.” 

2020 was a year marked by protests, marches and a growing community awareness that followed the rise of the Black Lives Matter [BLM] movement as well as demands for climate action and greater environmental responsibility. Following this year of awakening, last November the voters of San Juan County elected 18 charter review commissioners. 

The commission began its work by hosting town hall meetings, holding small-group discussions and receiving input from hundreds of county residents. What became clear to the commission was that they were not tasked to simply rearrange the deck chairs, but to consider bold actions that would substantially improve our local government’s ability to address justice, equity, climate change and environmental protection while dramatically improving our government’s ability to support our citizens and economy.  

After seven months work with several meetings each week and significant public engagement, the commission submitted its first six propositions that San Juan County voters will vote on this November. The commission continues working and plans to submit additional propositions for the 2022 ballot. 

The 2021 ballot propositions include: 

  1. Introduction to charter: Acknowledgment, Preamble, and Declaration of Community Values
  2. Term Limits for Council Members
  3. Climate and Environment Commission
  4. Initiatives and Referendums
  5. Non-discrimination in the Exercise of County Powers and Performance of its Duties
  6. Justice, Equity, and Inclusion Commission

The commission recommends amending the charter introduction by acknowledging the Coast Salish First Peoples of the islands and clearly stating the function and authority of the charter by recognizing the core county values of equity, our precious environment and the protection of each person under the law.

On the issue of county council term limits, the commission recommends a three-term limit, or twelve years, recognizing this balances the need for new voices in legislative leadership while allowing councilmembers to bring to their job the knowledge and experience that comes with multiple terms.

The commission responded boldly to climate marches that took place around the nation and here in our islands and to hundreds of youth who reminded us to address climate change and protect the natural environment with the proposal to establish a San Juan County Climate and Environment Commission to advance climate action, protect our environment and carry out San Juan County resolutions passed in 2020 and 2008 but not acted upon.

Following the commission’s lead, the county council created an independent county department of Climate and Environment last month. The commission did not think it was enough to simply make the existing division a department but heard from the public that the department must have the autonomy, strength and direct citizen involvement and transparency to be effective and advance climate action and environmental protection.  

The charter commission proposes the Climate and Environment Oversight Commission should therefore oversee and support the county’s Climate and Environment department. This oversight commission will review activities of the department and recommend actions. It will annually develop and update a Climate and Environment Action Plan and release an annual report to the public on the implementation of the action plan and performance of the county department and elected officials. It will meet with the director of the department in an oversight role and conduct future searches for department heads to forward to the county council to hire. 

The Climate and Environment Oversight Commission will be appointed by the county council and shall include representatives of environmental organizations, business, youth, existing county committees, Coast Salish tribes and others. 

The charter commission also proposes changes to local initiatives and referendums by removing requirements for county budgeting by citizens, lowering the signature requirement to place an item on the ballot, and requiring paid signature gatherers collecting petition signatures for San Juan County initiatives and referendums to display how they are paid. 

The final two recommendations voters will decide on arose from the BLM movement and a recognition that we must do more if we are to be the equitable and just community we strive to be. Shockingly, San Juan County is one of only two charter counties without a non-discrimination section and is silent on anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion.

To address this, the commission proposes including a non-discrimination section in the charter that incorporates state and federal non-discrimination language and upholds the core values put forward in the San Juan County Safe and Inclusive Community Resolution that was passed last year following the BLM marches but not acted upon. The recommendation ensures that no person is discriminated against in hiring and conditions of employment, compensation or termination of county officers or employees, or in the treatment of residents and visitors in the provision of government services.

A key component of this recommendation ensures that all contractors of professional services for the county meet the same anti-discrimination requirements as we demand of ourselves.

To carry out these non-discrimination measures, the commission recommends establishing a Justice, Equity and Inclusion Commission to provide advice and support to San Juan County government — bringing county residents into a meaningful dialogue with the county government. The Justice, Equity and Inclusion Commission may recommend executive and legislative actions and work with all branches of government to ensure principles of non-discrimination are followed.

The charter commission believes that these propositions will demonstrate how our small community of islands can be a model of how government can lead by example when it comes to justice, equity, climate action, the environment and citizen engagement in democracy. These propositions will allow the voters of San Juan County to be the change we want to see.

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in the Salish Current. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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