While there are many perspectives on how to protect the natural environment of the San Juan Islands, there is general agreement as to its beauty; the view north across to Orcas Island from Spencer Spit on Lopez Island is one example. San Juan County voters have a chance to decide on establishing a new climate and environment commission, among proposed amendments to the county charter on the Nov. 2 ballot. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

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San Juan County voters will have had their say by Nov. 2 on hotly debated amendments to their charter proposed by the Charter Review Commissionion. In a county characterized by strongly held positions on issues for and against, the charter amendments have become controversial, with one group launching a campaign encouraging voters to reject all the proposals. 

Proposals call for establishing two new commissions, on climate and equity; amending the introduction to the charter with an acknowledgement to Coast Salish peoples; setting term limits for the county council; and lowering the percentage of signatures needed to place an initiative on a county ballot. 

Proposition 1: Coast Salish acknowledgement

Nancy DeVaux, a longtime San Juan Islander, supports amending the charter introduction to acknowledge the Coast Salish, who had been stewards of the San Juans before Europeans arrived. She doesn’t find the amendment controversial.

However, one of the biggest sticking points for those against Proposition 1 has to do with property rights. The voters’ pamphlet statement against the proposal, written by Rene Polda, Erika Christensen and Koshi Holt, says:

” … the Acknowledgement uses language that potentially could lead to claims of appropriating land that we ‘took’ from the Coast Salish. Voting on an acknowledgement that says we reside on land belonging to them is opening landowners up to unforeseen problems.” [Editor’s note: Article 1 of the Treaty of Point Elliott specifies lands that were ceded by that agreement, including the San Juan archipelago.]

Gordy Peterson, another longtime San Juan County resident and member of the Freeholders who initiated San Juan County’s Home Rule Charter in 2005, told the League of Women Voters (LWV) panel discussion on Oct. 12 that Proposition 1 is divisive, and not shared values.

Bob Gamble of Orcas Island, another longtime resident, supports Proposition 1. “It’s just saying a bunch of nice stuff, which certainly can’t hurt,” Gamble said.                                                                                                    

Proposition 2: County council term limits

Shaun Hubbard comes from a family of islanders. She voted to approve Proposition 2 which caps county council terms at three. Each term limit is four years long, meaning a person could serve as a council person for up to 12 years. 

“I think it sounded reasonable and needed,” she said.

Carrie Brooks, another longtime resident of San Juan Island, told the LWV panel that she is concerned the proposition impedes people’s freedoms.

“It isn’t necessary,” Brooks said. “In 12 years most people will be burned out. The big deal is that we should have the freedom to vote for someone if they are doing a good job.” 

Gamble commented that term limits are very important and pointed out that there are people — and San Juan County has had them in various elected positions — who are charming yet terrible at their jobs. Because they are charming they continue to be able to get votes despite the fact they are not doing their job. On the flip side, there are people who are socially awkward and have a difficult time getting votes, but would do an amazing job if they could get elected. Term limits could give those candidates a chance. 

Rick Hughes of Orcas, a former county council member, said he wondered why the Charter Review Commission proposed term limits only for council members, not other elected positions. 

For DeVaux, “Three terms is a pretty long time, I’m not sure we’ve had many or any council members serve longer than 12 years.” Like Hubbard, she thinks Proposition 2 seemed reasonable. 

Proposition 3: Climate and environmental commission

Hubbard supports Proposition 3 because she sees overpopulation and reduced resources as critical issues for the islands. “The status quo is not sustainable. Water issues are a very big deal. If we proceed as we have, the islands as we know them will not be our islands any more, for resident and visitors alike,” Hubbard said. 

“How cool is it that we would actually have a government entity that would place the environment first?” Hubbard said. “Too often I have seen the local government, in their policy making, make decisions that either weaken environmental protection or place half-hearted measures in place that cannot sustain the environment in the long term.”

Hughes said he also supports protecting the environment, but he is rejecting the proposition. “The beautiful thing about our charter is the reliance on our council to do the right thing,” Hughes said. He prefers that the authority to set up boards and commissions remain with the county council and should not be mandated through charter amendments. 

DeVaux said climate change is one of the most critical issues the islands are facing, and she believes the proposed new commission will give additional expertise to help guide county officials.

Brooks told the LWV panel she believes the proposition is unnecessary and covered by other county departments and boards. “It will cost money for staff time, electricity to hold the meetings,” Brooks said. 

Gamble said he wasn’t sure how much of an impact a climate commission would be able to make. A commission certainly couldn’t hurt, he added, and with an issue as critical as climate change, he was most likely voting to approve the proposition. 

Proposition 4: Initiatives and referendums

Gamble said he agrees that paid signature gatherers should be clearly identified. Of all the propositions, however, Gamble said he likely would reject Proposition 4, which reduces the number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot. 

“I think it should be harder, not easier,” Gamble said, and that not all initiatives are made equally and they should not all be placed on the ballot. 

On the other hand, both Hubbard and DeVaux support the initiative proposition.

“The initiative signature issue struck a chord with me,” Hubbard said, because there have been occasions where initiatives that really could have made a difference in critical issues failed to make it to the ballot due to lack of signatures. 

“Initiatives in general increase democratic engagement,” DeVaux said. “Philosophically, it increases democracy when more people have more of a say.”

But Hughes said one concern about Proposition 4 is the fiscal aspect. The proposition removes the requirement that initiatives provide for new or additional sources of revenue needed to implement the initiative if passed. 

“We are a very small county that does a lot of things with a relatively small budget,” Hughes said. “It’s a little head-scratching to think we could throw anything [on the ballot] without any regards to paying for it.”

Brooks echoed Hughes sentiments. “It is irresponsible. We need to know how much things cost,” she said. 

Kevin Ranker, chair of the Charter Review Commission, responded to Brooks during the LWV discussion: “Of course, cost is important. But the charter already requires showing the funding source … Of course, [cost] should be part of the large discussion … part of the public debate, but it isn’t the job of the citizen to try to figure out the entire county budget.” 

Proposition 5: Non-discrimination

Proposition 5 would add a section to the charter prohibiting the local government to discriminate against individuals protected by state and local laws and adds new protected classes of body type, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Contractors for the county would also be required to follow the non-discrimination policies. 

Peterson is concerned about the effect of the provision on contractors and other industries that use out-of-county labor.

“This is duplicated of both state and county law,” Peterson said, and that it may open the county to lawsuits. “[Employers] outside the county are not subject to our rules. You’d think we have widespread discrimination. I just don’t see it,” Peterson said. 

DeVaux supports the proposition. “We need to be vigilant,” she said. “Our culture has a history of racism, all the isms, and I’m sure the county has had its issues over the years. We are a microcosm of everywhere else.” 

Hughes said that during his two terms on the county council, he wished more could have been done to address equity and inclusion in the county. However, like with many of the propositions, the concept is good but he isn’t convinced it will affect anything. 

Gamble said he also isn’t sure Proposition 5 will do a lot but it sets a good standard and certainly won’t hurt. 

Proposition 6: Justice, equity and inclusion

Proposition 6 establishes an 11-member commission made up of diverse islanders to support and provide guidance in issues of justice, diversity and inclusion to county elected officials, except for the judiciary. 

Peterson told the Oct. 12 LWV panel that he is concerned that there are too many qualifiers about who can serve on the two new proposed committees and that “discriminates against quality people,” Peterson said. He added that Proposition 6 isn’t needed and just creates one more committee overseeing people who are already doing a good job. 

Peterson also said it doesn’t make sense to create more commissions when county boards now have 70 vacancies. DeVaux, however, has served on the Affordable Housing Advisory Board for a few years and says the board seems to function well. If a board did struggle to find members, she said, they could simply continue on as a smaller group. 

DeVaux added that bringing together experts to help guide the county certainly couldn’t hurt. “I don’t see anything wrong with advisory boards, using people with experience and expertise to try and solve problems. Why not try to take advantage of this volunteer labor pool?” she said.

Hughes said the concept of working toward a more diverse community was good, but stressed that creating a board by charter amendment undermines the county council’s authority because that’s the council’s job. 

He isn’t sure a commission would solve the issues of diversity, justice and inclusion. “We need to create a diverse community and art, culture is the way to start,” he said. But whether it passed or failed, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Hubbard, however, feels the propositions will affect all islanders though not necessarily in direct or obvious ways. “It sets the tone for our governance going into the future,” she said. “I see it as making us more inclusive, sensitive and big-picture thinking.”

— Reported by Heather Spaulding

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