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Guest Column: Why didn't San Juan County Council members select Lytton to replace Ranker

  • Written by Cindy Wolf

Last Tuesday Feb. 5th our representatives threw away a golden chance to appoint a strong strategic advocate for San Juan County. The San Juan County Council voted unanimously to appoint a State Senator who was not their constituents first choice nor the local Democratic party's first choice. Unfortunately, the way the final vote was made in addition to some allegations still in the process of being corroborated that the suprising outcome of the appointment process was known to at least one public official ahead of time, has sparked concern that the Open Meetings Act was violated by a number of councilors. Since the vote in favor was 2 from Skagit, .6 from Whatcom and 3 from San Juan County, that means our county councilmen were the deciding votes. We need to take this very seriously.

What was the motivation for this? Why would our County Council turn on a staunch advocate with eight years of experience? Since the answers have been spurious, I am left to piece together the story. It starts 32 years ago when the Attorney General of Washington opined that even in a legislative district composed of multiple counties, county council members were not allowed to stand for the appointments to vacant legislative seats they ultimately get to vote on, unless they resigned before the selection process began with no expectation of appointment. This makes a certain amount of sense because the combined council's vote is public and there is obviously a great deal of pressure to vote for a colleague you must continue to run a county with, whether they win or lose.

Also, it is legal to double-dip in this state. You can hold two offices simultaneously, which Jamie Stephens expressed to me he thought he might do if appointed, and which, according to an article in GoSkagit, Senator Lovelett is considering and will make a decision about after a few weeks in Olympia. Having the same person paid to do two simultaneous jobs as a public representative is, perhaps, permission that ought to be granted in a public election, not by an appointment of one's peers.

Based on the Attorney General's opinion, the state party told Jamie Stephens and Whatcom County Coucilor Rud Browne they couldn't stand for the appointment to Kevin Ranker's vacated senate seat. To do otherwise would have opened the validity of the appointment to a court challenge in which the AG's opinion is given great weight. At that point, the counsels for each county or a state legislator were the only ones with standing to question the AG's opinion. It is my understanding from the AG's website Jeff Morris, who has complained publicly but not officially about the opinion, could have submitted the question on behalf of the 40th Legislative District appointment process.

Commissioner Browne then requested the counsel (attorneys) for Whatcom County to challenge the AG's opinion. Counsel refused on the grounds that since the challenge only affected Browne, it could be understood as a gift of public funds to an individual. The matter was brought to the attention of the Washington State Association of Councils, the Director of which commissioned a private law firm to review the Attorney General's opinion. The WSAC is a non-profit funded 50% by dues from member counties (public funds) and 50% by commissions from projects it is retained to complete. It is unclear whether public funds were spent on this review, but Rud Browne denies having commissioned it and Jamie Stephens has said nothing, so unless the Public Records Requesta (PRR) show differently, we must assume they were.

The opinion of that law firm, Pacifica Law Group, differed with the Attorney General opinion, but since it had no standing, would still have left the appointment open to legal challenge. With the precinct committee offers selection process looming in the near future, Washington State Democratic Central Committee (WSDCC) gave the Councils 24 hrs to produce counsel opinions on what grounds the AGO should be challenged. Since Whatcom had already refused to produce such an opinion, the deadline was, predictably, not met.

Because there was no solid legal backing for disregarding the opinion of the Attorney General, the WSDCC made the decision to keep its ruling in place. At the 40th Legislative District Democratic Precinct Committee Officers meeting February 2, Kris Lytton was voted first on a mandatory list of three names. Of 46 votes cast 29 went to her, 16 to Anacortes City Councilwoman Liz Lovelett and one to Trevor Smith from the Labor Council.

Aside from the complete disregard for constituent preferences, for recommendation by the PCOs and for the wisdom of choosing a powerful ally demonstrated by all three San Juan County councilmen, there are several other things that need to be called out:

Rick Hughes and Jamie Stephens both told the story to different people that Kris Lytton somehow knew Kevin Ranker was in trouble and would be forced to resign, so she stepped down to let Debra Lekanoff run and kept money in her campaign coffers planning to “come to the rescue” when Kevin Ranker got in trouble. Bear in mind that Kris announced her retirement in February 2018 and Debra Lekanoff declared in March (ish?) 2018. The rules allowing for the complaint were not in place until July 2018 and complainant Ann Larson did not even begin to consider lodging the complaint until after the Kavanaugh hearing.

During the comments section of the agenda at the Combined County Council Meeting, Rick and Jamie both cited Lytton's vote for SB 6617, an altered version of the Public Records Disclosure Act as a reason to doubt her commitment to transparency. Lytton says she and Rick Hughes spoke directly about her vote at the time and she let him know it was influenced by a recent situation in which a constituent sought help from her office after being raped. The constituent was afraid to go to the police because there were citizenship issues in her family. Lytton had concerns that the unaltered version of the Public Records Disclosure Act would mean that, if asked, she would have to release the immigration status information given to her to anyone making a PRR, even someone wishing to hand the information over to ICE. Jeff Morris held concerns about the unaltered version of the law and voted the same way as Kris Lytton. It is worth noting that lack of legal clarity around protection of immigration status information and compliance with Public Disclosure laws was one of Randy Gaylord's objections to the county ordinance on that subject passed in the summer 2017. Because Rick knew Lytton's reasoning for her vote on SB 6617, his willingness to throw this particular mud ball leaves dirt on his hands.

Rick and Jamie told a few people that they suspected Kris of calling Learner Limbach and talking him into withdrawing from the race by promising to support him in a future County Council run. They predicated this on knowing that the date Kris and Learner talked was just before his announcement of withdrawal. Learner emailed me about that call, which he initiated, the day after it happened. It was a courtesy call in which he informed Lytton of his intention to withdraw his name. They discussed Learner's policy issue concerns and Kris was impressed with his knowledge and asked to keep in touch for agricultural policy and food security advice.

Bill Watson has openly expressed irritation that the Democratic Party showed a preference for one of the three candidate. He has written that he was choosing a Senator for the future. Dicey logic considering his remit was to choose a Senator for the session. Rud Browne,at least, will likely make a well-financed run at the seat in November and who knows how many others will jump in. I guess Bill showed the grassroots party they are not the boss of him.

Jamie Stephens was incensed at having to follow rules which denied him a shot at the appointment. He appears to have wanted a chance to swat back at the WSDCC and was looking for reasons to disrespect Kris Lytton because he had decided the AGO was brought to light to thwart her strongest opponents. The problem with this thinking is he would have had to get past the PCOs, as would Browne, and most were disinclined to put sitting Councilors on the list precisely because it represents undue influence.

Rick Hughes went along for the ride because it gave him a great platform to perform the role of independent moral thinker, practice his small "r" republican philosophy of government with disregard for post-election public input, and deny power to a person he had decided was out to get him.

I congratulate Senator Lovelett on her new position. She is a capable and intelligent person with some interesting local legislation under her belt. She has little time left in the current session, and, being the most junior member of the legislature, has some big work ahead forging alliances and getting up to speed. Her issues positions look pretty good and in my mind questions about our County Council's behavior should not reflect on her leadership or future accomplishments.

As to the County Council, a thoroughly fulfilled PRR ought to go some way towards painting a more complete picture of what looks from here like a lot of egging-on, but even the publicly available facts show yet another facet of our political culture in this County and this Legislative District in a damning light. All possible scandal aside, we are once again seeing the philisophical divide between those officials who see themselves as elected bosses and the people who see them as elected and publicly paid employees.

Our tiny part of the world keeps ending up in the Big City papers for all the wrong reasons. We lost a State Senator to scandal and now we have Representative Morris under review for allegations of creating a hostile work environment, our Sheriff being investigated for innappropriate use of courtroom cameras, and our County Council acting erratic enough to arouse the suspicions of good people all over the legislative district. Is it really so aggravating to follow the rules?

Cindy Wolf

Deer Harbor