By John Evans
Colin Maycock wrote a thoughtful piece about the interplay between elected officials and county employees; current Charter vs. proposed revisions. I would like to offer a somewhat different perspective and support the three amendments proposed by the Charter Review Committee.
An important point that sometimes is forgotten: our County government belongs to the people of San Juan County. Local citizens run for office and are elected to represent the public’s interest in their government. Council members or Commissioners are not re-elected if they do not direct the affairs in the County in a manner supported by the voters. I have no doubt that life as a public employee might be happier if they could largely be their own boss without the interruptions from those elected representatives communicating the public’s wishes for their government’s rules, policies and programs.
I offer the following as an example of how the system is designed to work.
The beautiful Westside Scenic Road on San Juan Island, Rosario Road on Orcas and the other scenic roads in San Juan County exist because the public clearly did not want the flat, wide and straight roads being promoted by Public Works staff. The three Commissioners insisted that the public’s will be followed. Staff did not agree and there were some hard feelings but again, the government belongs to the people. The end result is that San Juan County has the scenic road design option as part of our “lets keep it rural” road system.
Most counties in the State or Washington are governed and managed by a set of three County Commissioners. No doubt there are bumps here and there but in general the system works well for the citizens of the 33 “Commissioner” counties, and those county’s public employees.
To address a concern expressed by Colin Maycock about the role of elected officials, it is important to note that no single Commissioner in San Juan County or in any other county’s jurisdiction has the authority to direct a Department Head or staff person to do anything. The staff person always has the legal foundation and justification to say that policy X or Y needs to come from the Board of County Commissioners as a formal action, not the request or demand of a single Commissioner. It always takes a majority vote to put any policy or program forward. As with the Scenic Road example, the staff may have to change their approach to meet the views of the public and the Commissioners. That to me is responsive and responsible government for the citizens.
Often management is best that is simple and direct …. as with the three-member Council proposal being brought forward by the Charter Review Commission. Under the current system of 6 Council members the staff is still dealt with directly and questioned directly …. with the Administrator largely on the sidelines. Confusion persists as the Council tries to negotiate and communicate a coherent position between six individual Council members and then the staff tries to fathom what the Council direction is. Ultimately, the Administrator tries to navigate between the staff and the Council. The system is cumbersome and sometimes unresponsive.
From an outside view it appears, that in the confusion, the staff pretty much sets its own direction. That may make some staff members happy, but that outcome more often than not leaves the voters, the public, and in some cases the elected Council standing in the wings.
Thirty-three of the 39 Washington State Counties have the three-Commissioner form of Constitutional government and seem to make it work. Only one of the six Charter counties, Clallam, has a smallish population (72,000). Clallam’s Charter operates with three Council members. The other five Charter Counties are the huge big city counties down sound.
I served as an elected member of the three-Commissioner government in San Juan County for 12 years. It was during the time of adoption of the GMA Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Code. Opinions about the proposals were seriously debated and the pressure on the 3 Commissioners and the planning staff was huge. A team effort between senior planners, three Commissioners, Prosecutor Gaylord and a very engaged public got the job done. There were always plenty of budget issues and a host of public concerns large and small to add to the mix. There were 2-1 votes, major policy initiatives and various staffing issues. Through it all, direction to staff was always clear, and as with the scenic roads, the staff did not always agree.
I can not imagine trying to manage the County under the current Charter with six elected Council members, who often have independent viewpoints that need to be addressed, and are elected representatives who have no authority over the County staff. Throw a largely independent County Manager into the mix for good measure. WOW!
If I were a County employee under the current Charter, I would long for the days when there was clear direction and leadership so I could do my job for the public with confidence. Colin and most of the current Community Development and Planning staff are new since the original GMA days but the long-serving County employees who are still part of the County team may long for the three-Commissioner days in the past when goals and objectives, clear direction and team work were more common than not.
John Evans is the former San Juan County Commissioner from 1992-2004