Op-Ed: “Prospects & Pitfalls in the San Juan County Council” by Steve Wehrly, San Juan Island

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September 26, 2015 by islandersvoice1

edited for postingOne principle of governance that I like is found in the opening words of Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience: “The government is best that governs least.”

A corollary of that aphorism might be that elected bodies such as county councils and legislatures, who are empowered to write the laws, should not “micromanage” those laws.

Three years ago, the deliberations of the committee elected to amend our county charter talked about both “least government” and “don’t micromanage.” Apparently, at least one member of the San Juan County Council disagreed with the micromanagement corollary.

The amended charter designated the Council to exercise the executive authority for county government, to be implemented by the County Manager at the direction of the whole Council. The entire Council, it was said, should exercise its authority through the budget and the ordinances and resolutions considered and approved by the Council. The Council should not concern itself with the nitty-gritty details of managing the bureaucracy and especially should not interfere with the employees or the regulatory structure created by the Council.

Traditionally, in San Juan County and in many local governments, Councilmembers were involved in the decisions and actions of the employees of the county. These “hands-on management” traditions were strong in San Juan County: Councilmembers could “get things done” – and help friends and constituents navigate the impersonal bureaucracy and the ever-more complicated County regulatory scheme. This kind of management was the norm is city and county governments, but it invariably led to abuses, favoritism and ill-considered decisions.

When the Council sticks to its primary duties – approving the County budget and making sure that ordinances and resolutions advance County policies and priorities – it’s doing a good job, although some may disagree with its interpretation of those policies and priorities.

But getting personally and individually involved in our County’s bureaucracy and the regulatory scheme set forth in our laws seems to have become ever more prominent in our County governance, although it is difficult to determine which Councilmembers are doing so because of lack of transparency.

Individual Councilmembers, it appears, are directly approaching the County Manager on issues without talking with other Councilmembers and without bringing matters before the whole Council in one of its public meetings.

Among a number of actions taken without full Council action, or at least without public action by the Council: a career employee (the lead planner on the Critical Areas Ordinance update process) was peremptorily fired; two County department heads were removed; a consultancy contract (with Lovell Pratt, who was defeated in the 2012 election) was terminated; and one Councilmember directly involved himself in at least two regulatory processes.

In one permit application dispute, a Councilmember, at the request of an attorney for the permit applicant, made a formal affidavit suggesting that the Councilmember by himself could inform the Planning Department what the intention of the Council was with regard to a provision of the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Another direct involvement is especially troubling. Apparently, the Councilmember for San Juan Island sought the reversal of a staff finding requiring a “wetland reconnaissance report“ before a permit would be issued involving land owned by the homeowners association, where the Councilmember resides, owns a second parcel, and was also president of the association.

The County Manager reversed the staff finding based upon his walk-through inspection of the site, determining there was “no wetland.” The subsequent issuance of the permit was the subject of a whistleblower complaint by Chris Laws, the County Code Enforcement Officer, who subsequently resigned his position after the County Prosecutor ruled that the the whistleblower complaint was not valid. The fallout from the episode continues.

This isn’t the way San Juan County, or any local government, should operate. Direct involvement by individual Councilmembers in County government operations, employment actions or department decisions should not occur. If such involvement is warranted, the entire Council should be involved and the proceeding should be public. That was the intent of the framers of the charter and that is part of basic good governance.

This is the first of several essays I have been invited to write by Islanders’ Voice, drawing on thirty years of direct involvement in politics and government as a lobbyist for businesses and associations, and two years of local reporting for the San Juan Journal. I appreciate the opportunity afforded me by Islanders Voice to offer my opinions on local government and politics.

My future entries on this blog will address the highly-contentious Critical Areas Ordinance review process (including especially whether it needed to be as expensive and time-consuming as it was), the general organization of county government, the nature and timing of the county elections, the county budget and taxation process, and related local government questions.

As a matter of disclosure, I am considering filing for election to the County Council in 2016 for the San Juan Island Residency District seat.

Note from Editor: This op-ed represents the opinions of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of Islanders’ Voice or of the San Juan County Democrats.

One thought on “Op-Ed: “Prospects & Pitfalls in the San Juan County Council” by Steve Wehrly, San Juan Island

  1. Jim nollman says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and expertise. Many of us in this county believe the council is, too often, taking stances that are detrimental to farming, and which ultimately benefit a few land developers leading to gentrification. It’s been many years since I would describe any council member as a good ole boy. The favoritism displayed by the San Juan rep, seems to fit that term a bit too closely.

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