After an eleventh-hour Superior Court hearing, four county charter amendment measures, including a proposal for ranked choice voting, will be on the November general election ballot in San Juan County. The ruling was announced Tuesday, Aug. 16, by Island County Superior Court Judge Christon Skinner.
In a last-minute surprise to members of the charter review commission (CRC), the county council waited until Aug. 2, the deadline for the amendments to be submitted to the auditor’s office, and voted unanimously in public session not to advance the amendments, after an executive session to discuss an agenda item noted as “litigation.”
At that time, the council said that the set of four charter amendments “does not conform with the procedural requirements of the San Juan County Charter and we will not be taking action to send these proposals to the auditor for placement on the November ballot.” No other explanation was given to the public.
Two members of the CRC commission, Maureen See and Sharon Abreu, immediately filed a motion for correction of election error. The council was obligated to put the charter amendments on the ballot, they claimed, and due to the timing of the upcoming of election, the court scheduled a hearing right away.
After a one-hour hearing on Aug. 15, Skinner issued his decision on Tuesday afternoon. The case was expedited in order to correct the election error and give time for the four measures to be included in the voters’ pamphlet and printed on the ballot.
Issues discussed in the hearing were procedural:
- when the term of the CRC expired
- whether there was anything in the charter requiring all the amendments at once
- at what point in time the CRC submitted the amendments and whether they were ever told they could not submit two groups of measures.
The court ultimately agreed with the charter review commissioners that the county council did not have the authority to block the measures.
Up against deadlines
According to the San Juan County election manager, the voters’ pamphlet page count must be submitted to the Secretary of State by Aug. 19, and all election information from San Juan County to be included in the pamphlet must be sent to press no later than Aug. 30. Ballots will be mailed to voters on Oct. 18.
Skinner noted that the council waited until Aug. 2 to make its decision to reject the last four proposed amendments. “This decision was based on counsel‘s erroneous conclusion and the belief that the CRC members terms of office ended in July 2021 and that any further submissions were procedurally invalid,” he said. “Not only was this conclusion erroneous, in the court’s view, but it was also not the council’s decision to make.”
Furthermore, Skinner wrote, “Clearly the timing of the council’s decision was intended to substantially limit the CRC’s ability to respond in effective and timely manner.”
An order granting the motion for correction of election error was issued, ordering the county to take all steps necessary to ensure that the propositions are on the ballot.
On Aug. 17, the day after the decision was received, the county council issued a statement, saying:
“Today, the San Juan County Council voted to forward the four proposed Charter Review Commission ballot measures to the auditor for placement on the November ballot.
“Council had earlier proceeded on its understanding of what the charter required based on the advice of the prosecuting attorney.
“San Juan County is respectful of a system that allows for adjudication of questions about how the charter should be interpreted. The court has resolved those questions and the county is glad that the proposed charter measures will now be decided by the voters.”
Also on Aug. 17 the San Juan County auditor’s office issued a statement seeking “con” writers for statements against the proposed amendments to be included in the voters’ pamphlet.
San Juan County originally voted for home rule in 2005 and created its own charter, San Juan County’s unique constitution. Per the charter, every 10 years a group of citizens is elected to review the charter and propose amendments, which are to go before the voters for approval.
In 2020, 18 citizens were elected to serve as charter review commissioners. They worked over the course of almost year and agreed upon 10 amendments altogether. Six proposals went before voters in 2021; and four more will now go the ballot in 2022.
Voters approved three of the six amendments in 2021.
The amendments that will now go on the ballot in November are:
- Establishing a new position of public advocate for the purpose of helping citizens navigate the San Juan County systems
- Amending language in the county charter to provide clarification regarding budget provisions for the CRC, staff support requirements and further resolution regarding the term length, procedures and duties of the CRC, and the role of the prosecuting attorney
- Amending the current voting rules to include ranked choice voting. This will allow county voters to use ranked choice voting when Washington state law provides for a method of ranked choice voting.
- Amending signature requirements concerning initiatives and referendum.
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux
To the Editor: “Council vote not appropriate,” Salish Current, Aug. 18, 2022
“Voters to have their say — amid controversy — on San Juan County charter amendments,” Salish Current, Oct. 28, 2021
Community Voices: “San Juan County to vote on climate, environment, equity, justice amendments to county charter,” Salish Current, Aug. 12, 2021
“‘Bold’ ideas around equity, environment proposed as San Juan reviews its county charter,” Salish Current, May 21, 2021
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