Elected Charter Changes Stand up in Court!

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From The Journal of San Juan FEBRUARY 28, 2013 By Steve Werhly

In a clean sweep for supporters of the voter-approved changes to the county charter, all three propositions presented to the people in the November election were upheld in a decision handed down Feb. 26 in San Juan County Superior Court.

The ruling means that the election of a new three-member County Council will proceed as scheduled on April 23, executive authority will be returned to the County Council, and all council meetings, including subcommittee meetings, will be open to the public.

In a four-page letter detailing his decision on each of the seven causes of action presented by the plaintiffs, Judge John M. Meyer, as Visiting Judge in San Juan County Superior Court, ruled that the charter amendments do not violate either the Washington or the U. S. Constitution, or state law.

On the key issue of the disproportionate populations of the three legislative districts, Meyer wrote, “residency districts, as opposed to voting districts, may be unequal in population and size.”

On the other key issue of voting rights, he wrote: “Not one of the propositions put before the voters has an impact on the fundamental right to vote.”

Filed on the heels of the November election by three county residents, Jeff Bossler of Orcas, Gerry Gonce of Lopez and Mike Carlson of San Juan, the lawsuit sparked numerous legal motions by both parties and pre-hearing depositions before arguments were aired in court. The ruling by Meyer, however, was swift, handed down just one week after both parties made their case during a day-long session in Superior Court.

Friday Harbor’s Stephanie Johnson O’Day, attorney for the plaintiffs, said she would appeal the decision, probably on an emergency basis to the state Supreme Court, and she would renew her request for a temporary injunction halting the April 23 election.

“We always anticipated that one side or the other would appeal,” she said.

Although not happy with the result, Johnson O’Day is gratified by Meyer’s comments near the end of his decision that the plaintiffs “raised good and debatable issues” and “people participated for more than merely not liking the political result, but to question the process.”

In his decision, Meyer noted that voters basically reinstated the same type of government they had just eight years earlier by approving the three propositions championed by the Charter Review Commission.

“Most interesting to me, though perhaps not particularly relevant, is that the propositions 1, 2 and 3 essentially implement the same system of government that existed before the original (home rule charter) was put into effect in 2005,” he said.