08/15/2011: "LETTERS ON CHARTER COMMISSION ELECTION"
Does anyone else think it is strange that a candidate running for the Charter Review Commission is also suing the County?
George Johnson filed suit in Skagit County in January of this year and a trial date is set in 2012. The suit relates to issues surrounding his termination in 2010. One might also wonder why Mr. Johnson filed in Skagit County. Was he afraid it might reflect on his candidacy? Additionally, Mr. Johnson was on the original charter committee as a freeholder.
Our opportunity to review, improve and enhance the charter is of paramount importance to all of us. It is likely his involvement would compromise the work of the committee.
I highly recommend we elect new members to the commission, certainly not the old ones who may quite possibly have hidden agendas.
In four weeks, San Juan County voters will choose 21 Charter Review Commissioners to review the County’s charter. They will take stock of the charter government that voters put in place in 2005 and assess its effectiveness. It will not be surprising if they find things that can be improved. Voters will be asked to approve suggested changes in 2012.
I think the future commission and the voters should consider:
Why aren’t enough capable people running for office?
Why are important races going uncontested?
How can we possibly expect to resolve long-standing issues without enough qualified candidates to choose from on Election Day?
In 2005 the Freeholders asked the voters to approve, among other things, a change to non-partisan elections for County Council. We agreed, and this is where we threw the baby out with the bathwater.
Since adopting non-partisan elections, we have seen a decline in the number of candidates on the ballot, with critical elected offices going uncontested and fewer qualified candidates to choose from.
At first glance, taking “party politics” out of local elections seemed like a reasonable decision. What we didn’t anticipate was that partisan elections had helped ensure healthy competition for these positions.
Partisan elections motivated the parties to identify, nominate and support candidates for local office. As a result, the voters had more choice and more information about the candidates’ views. In addition, candidates had support in running their campaigns if they wanted it. In small communities, even modest campaign support can make all the difference to a smart and qualified candidate running for the first time
Another consideration is how party affiliation opens doors in Olympia. For better or worse, elected officials from small counties have far less leverage at the state and national level than their counterparts in large metropolitan counties. Our county representatives have not traditionally been career politicians with connections in Olympia. Eliminating party affiliation from County Council races only ensures that our representatives will have even less political clout and fewer opportunities to represent San Juan County.
When the State Constitution was ratified in 1887, it created rules for the commission form of county government. This system called for partisan elections for all but judicial elections. I am not proposing that San Juan County go back to that form of government, but I do believe that when it comes to electing our representatives, the Constitution was right. Partisan elections provide the voters with more information, more candidates, and more choice, which are all critical to good government.
I hope our Charter Review commission will consider a return to partisan elections when they convene early next year.
San Juan Island
With regard to the discussion about the election of the Charter Review Committee members on November 8th, I would like to suggest that we not elect former freeholders to the committee. I worry that new members might be tempted to defer to the opinions of the original committee members. At the same time I worry that former freeholders might feel protective of the decisions that were made in the past.
The new committee will have the notes of discussions and interviews that took place during the Charter formation period. They could also interview any former freeholders, if they want to. But an all-new committee will bring fresh ideas based on the experience of the last 6 years and no baggage with them.
San Juan Island
In my opinion, the voters of San Juan County have an excellent group of candidates to choose from in electing the 21 local residents who will serve for a year in reviewing our Charter.
Because there are so many of us running, however, there will be limited opportunities for voters to evaluate our qualifications and positions. For this reason, I am writing this statement and I invite others to do the same.
My brief views on assorted topics:
• The County Prosecuting Attorney has written that the CRC members have “no real limitation to their authority or on what they can do.” A news report noted that the Charter can be fine-tuned, overhauled, or tossed out altogether. I am open to the first two but I oppose throwing the charter out.
• The old system was partisan; the charter specifies nonpartisan legislators (council members). I support the nonpartisan nature of the Home Rule Charter.
• We are fortunate that some of the Freeholders who developed the Charter are running for CRC. Their knowledge and experience will be helpful to the new group but I think everyone will need to be focused on the particulars of the new task. It will be important for the new CRC members to find their own way.
• To the extent possible, I think the Charter analysis should also include study of the original Freeholders’ conclusions on what was deficient in the system we had in place until the Charter was adopted, and undertake some comparisons/contrasts that would lessen the possibility of repeating mistakes.
• I strongly support the following statement from the Charter: Section 1.30, titled “Construction.”
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.
I believe that the following simple framework would be helpful to the CRC members as an overall guide for exploring relevant issues:
1. Explore and define problems with the Charter. What’s wrong with it? What isn’t working?
2. Clearly identify areas of responsibility for the problems, e.g. Which challenges can be traced to structure (division of duties, composition of subcommittees, lack of transparency in the rules of procedure, confusion in Charter language, etc.) and which are more attributable to the “human element?” (Council member disagreements on issues, dissatisfaction with advice from Staff, “micromanaging,” spending too much time on the part-time Council position, and so forth).
3. Significance: Work together to decide on which problems are critically important and which ones are relatively minor. Some issues are coming up regularly in published articles and letters: Do we have the right number of Council members with 6? Is the representation fair? Is the division of responsibility between Council and Administrator appropriate? Some concerns might be less significant. Voter understanding on the differences between an initiative, a mini-initiative, and a referendum might be weak but could be addressed with better education. The CRC members will need to organize their time well.
4. Persistence: Which problems are not going to go away unless they are fixed? Which ones might disappear, given time.
5. Cost: In dollar costs, what Charter elements are expensive and should be eliminated or adjusted? Have there been cost savings in some areas? What benefits might be coming with the costs? What human costs should be addressed?
6. Cure: When solutions to current problems are devised, what is the likelihood that they will actually work better than the old way? Will they introduce additional problems?
I appreciate your taking the time to read this and I hope you will consider voting for me. I have reviewed the charter and the various commentaries written at the time of adoption and later on.
I have also looked at agendas, minutes, and other documentation from the Freeholders. They did an incredible amount of work. I don’t believe the Charter Review Commission will be faced with effort of that magnitude but it’s going to be a big job and I am enthusiastic about the possibility of participating.
Candidate for Charter Review Commission
District 2 (San Juan Island)
An important topic is becoming a focus of discussion now. The charter review is on our horizon and deserves our attention and consideration.
In the county we moved to a new form of government and now is our opportunity to look at these decisions and evaluate them. Have our expectations been met? Could some of the decisions and current practices be improved?
I urge the voters to consider this time as their chance to again have input, fine tune the policies and make a few necessary improvements.
In November, we will vote to select the Charter Review Committee. I recommend voters closely examine the candidates to ensure a committee dedicated to honest and open discussion, which will lead to fresh assessment of the current policies.
San Juan Island
To All Candidates for the San Juan County Charter Review Commission: I urge you not to give in to political blackmail from the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR), a special interest group headquartered in the Seattle area. Several if not all non-partisan candidates for the first Charter Review Commission to be elected in November recently received an email from CAPR which asked candidates to commit to support its partisan position on property rights in advance of the election in November. Specifically, CAPR asked candidates to pledge in advance of the election to "not use the power of my office to advance the regulation, loss of use, taking, or damage to any private property without just compensation to the owner having first been made." Candidates also received a not very veiled threat of a negative rating by CAPR if they do not sign the pledge and do not answer a follow-up questionnaire to CAPR's liking.
Please do not sign the pledge. Do not tie your hands before the first meeting of the new commission. While such a position on property rights may seem reasonable to some, it is overly broad, open to interpretation, and can have unforeseen adverse effects.
Even if you are sympathetic to the pledge, be aware that the electorate expects elected candidates for non-partisan public offices such as this to take office with an open mind and to not be beholden to any special interests such as CAPR.
Before deciding whom to vote for, I urge all voters to ask the candidates from your district for the Charter Review Commission if they have signed this pledge from a Seattle-area organization.
San Juan Island
When the citizens of San Juan County voted in a Home Rule Charter in November 2005, we voted for the right to have a greater representation and involvement in our government. This November we have an important opportunity to cast our votes for a new Charter Review commission who will review the first five years and recommend any changes, WE THE VOTERS think is necessary and vital to the Home Rule Charter.
We need fresh eyes to be on this new Commission. We, as citizens, need to ask tough questions about the last five years of government and evaluate what is working and what is not working.
Is the six person County Council an effective form of leadership for our County's needs? Are the six County Council members performing their duties in a non-partisan way? Is the separation of powers between the County Council and the County Administrator an effective means of running the County government? Has the Home Rule Charter been "revenue neutral" as promised during the last campaign? Does the curent election by districts adequately serve the entire San Juan County? Do we have too many elected officials for a County this size? Do the citizens of our County understand the powers of initiative and referendum?
The voters of San Juan County have an important job this November. The ballot will contain measures and candidate choices that will impact our County well into the future. If voters are indifferent to this election, it will be ten more years before the Home Rule Charter can be examined again.
Please print thisl.
voter & business owner
Recently, there have been complaints about the Charter and even a call to return to the old 3 member County Commissioner government ( Related column). I was one of the original Freeholders who helped hammer out the current charter and while it’s far from perfect; it’s better than what we had.
Here’s what I think the new charter has done well:
1) Equal representation. All votes are about equal. Under the old system, the island with 1/6th of the population controlled 1/3rd of the Commission votes.
2) Local control. You vote for the council member in your district only. San Juan can’t control Lopez’s outcome.
3) Non-partisan. Looking at the national level, can anyone really believe that injecting party politics back into local issues would be a good idea?
4) Initiative and referendum. We now can, and have addressed issues at the voter level when we were not satisfied with outcomes. This shouldn’t be over-used but it’s good to have as a tool if the voters get ahead of their leaders on an issue.
Not everything has been perfect. Council members still micro-manage, they pander to the loudest group, they can’t seem to get to a decision on tough issues. But these were all problems we had with the old Commissioner model too. Remember that the solid waste debacle has defied solution under both forms of government.
Some things were left undone when the Charter.was proposed too. We simply ran out of time and didn’t address consolidation of other departments. Most importantly, we let the Council pay undefined and the salary commission set it far too high. Maybe if Council members received about half of what they now do they would be less inclined to meddle with operations decisions and let staff do their work. These are issues that the new Charter review group can consider but let’s not go backwards to a form or government that not only didn’t work ant better but was also inherently unfair in it’s representation.
There is an election coming next year and we will have a chance to send a message if we feel that change is needed. Pay attention to the candidates and as the old knight advised Indiana Jones, “Choose wisely!”
San Juan Island