05/03/2012: "-- Guest Column --"
By Sam Buck III am 84 years old, was born on San Juan Island and have lived here most of my life. My father was farming at Doe Bay on Orcas Island when other returning World War I veterans persuaded him to run for county attorney. He was elected, moved to Friday Harbor, and served from 1920-28, then two years in the state legislature, and two more terms as county attorney. My brother served as county attorney from 1946-54.
I started my own business in 1960 and was actively involved in the community as I am to this day. It is from this perspective that I want to share my thoughts about the past and present and the challenges of our future government.
THE ISLAND WAY OF LIFE
The San Juan Islands are a beautiful, quiet place to live. The early settlers learned to live together in peace and harmony, developing trust in each other and seeing the benefits of working together. People felt a responsibility to take care of themselves and their neighbors and to contribute to the community.
I call this a natural way of life for it developed similarly on each island. It became known as the handshake society where a man's word was his bond. The islands prospered. I feel it is important to preserve these values which are the islands' historic way of life and are still alive today.
From 1800s - 1950s
In the 1800s, settlers worked together and built schools and churches without any government involvement. In 1898, Washington became a state and the San Juan Islands, as a county of the state of Washington, were directed to elect three county commissioners to serve the county.
World War I veterans, on their return, proposed new rules which were voted on and approved in 1920. From the 1920s to the 1960s, people basically took care of themselves and gave responsibility to the government only for matters they felt the government could handle better, e.g. county roads, schools and medical services.
The positive results are evident in the three books published recently about early life on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Island (available at the Historical Museums). The photos show a variety of buildings which are the result of conscientious people doing the right thing without government.
It is important to note that in Friday Harbor there are 54 buildings in use by businesses today which were constructed without permits or government involvement of any kind: 25 built in the 1800s, 27 between 1900 and the 1930s, and two in the 1940s - 50s. In addition there were many homes and farmhouses built on all the islands that are being lived in today and they required no permits.
In the 1960s, the county government was in serious danger of going broke. Island population was declining. Pea farming was finished, fishing was declining, and the quarrying and processing of lime at Roche Harbor had ended. These had been major sources of taxes and jobs for islanders.
My first experience with county government was in the 1960s when I proposed the development of Friday Island and later of Cape San Juan. These waterfront properties were bringing in less than a thousand dollars in taxes a year. The county commissioners recognized that conversion of low valued waterfront to high valued home sites could bring in substantial new taxes and that construction of new homes would create new jobs.
Carl Nash, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, encouraged me to preserve farmland and open space and sell home sites in the woods and on waterfront, which had little value at that time. This I did and, in my opinion, this is an example of government working with people to achieve common beneficial goals as now these lands create millions in tax dollars instead of just hundreds in tax dollars.
As a result of property sales, the islands' economy shifted from rural income to residential income. In the 1970s, the new peoples' purchase of property and building of homes in the islands significantly improved the economy of the islands. These new people also brought their own ideas of government.
Island rules had traditionally been interpreted with flexibility to meet individual situations. Beginning in the 70s these rules gradually changed into uniform laws.
In 1970 the first interference with county government that I was aware of came when the state of Washington imposed the Shorelines Management Act on our county. This act was passed without one individual from the San Juan Islands on the committee - and we are the only county that is 100% shoreline!
There is nothing critically wrong with the San Juan Islands. What is critically wrong is the government of the state of Washington which, in the last five years, has created more economic and social damage to our county than was done in the last 100 years and by unelected and politically appointed state bureaucrats who are not islanders. This is our county government and we need it to serve the people of the islands, not the state.
The 2011 county budget is approximately $50,000,000. We need to examine how much county government we really need for the 16,000 residents who live here most of whom live a country life. Actually, even fewer people pay taxes here.
A Board of Commissioners for the islands had been created in 1898, with three elected commissioners each being responsible for his/her island district. Together they formed the Board of Commissioners, elected a chairman and represented the county.
This commissioner system of county government worked very well from 1898 to 2005 because the districts were identified as islands and the waters between them are natural boundaries that make these islands isolated physically and socially.
SAN JUAN COUNTY'S GOVERNMENT CHALLENGE
One hundred seventy two islands, thirty isolated island communities that do not know each other developed thirty ways of living and learned to live together in peace and harmony. All are valuable to the county.
Of sixteen thousand people, only two thousand people in Friday Harbor need city government. Fourteen thousand people are spread over one hundred ten thousand acres who only require county government for such things as health, education and welfare, county roads, schools and the services of our elected officials in the Court House.
We tried the county council system. It just doesn't fit. We need our county commissioners back with this change: Each district is so different it needs to elect its own county commissioner and establish its own rules to live by that allows each district to give all of its citizens a voice, no matter whether they are on small islands or in small communities in the district. Three districts, each with its own commissioner to lead it.
These three commissioners would then elect their Chairman of the Board to run the county government as the voice of the county and to protect us and deal with outsiders. This gives responsibility to your county commissioners to help everyone keep their way of living together in peace and harmony, serving everyone equally.
These are my suggestions. What are yours? I know the county is divided in opinions but the San Juan Islands and their history are worth fighting for and since their way of getting along in peace and harmony was so valuable and the results so extraordinary, I feel that we can do the same if we get together.
P.S. Yes, Orcas, you and you alone can run Orcas. This is my take. You too, Lopez.
(I am Sam R. Buck II. My father was Sam R. Buck I, a World War I veteran, and my brother Bob, a World War II veteran. Sam R. Buck III is one of my sons. Barbara and I have four children, eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren to protect the San Juan Islands.)