Commissioner dispute lands L&J tax issue with county auditor

Wrangling over who gets to write statements about Island County’s law-and-justice levy for the online voters’ pamphlet has led commissioners to ask the County Auditor to make the decision.

Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson was upset earlier this month when fellow Commissioner Jill Johnson declined during a work session to name the individuals who will write “pro and con” statements about the levy.

Johnson said she wanted Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who was absent from the session, to be involved in the process.

But Emerson interpreted a state law to mean that the commissioners had missed a deadline to appoint the individuals, so the responsibility falls to the County Auditor.

Price Johnson, however, said the board received a legal opinion contrary to Emerson’s reading of the law.

Nevertheless, Emerson got her way during the commissioners’ regular meeting Monday, though she ultimately abstained from the vote.

Johnson explained that the prosecutor and the sheriff requested to be among the three members on the “pro committee.”

Price Johnson faulted Emerson for sending out an email claiming that the prosecutor and sheriff were already appointed to the committee and that they had met already; she said the allegations are very serious.

“I would urge you not to make such inflammatory statements that are untrue,” she said.

In a letter to Auditor Sheilah Crider, which was carbon copied to five others, Emerson wrote, “the members of the pro statement committee were agreed upon and may have begun their work already.”

Emerson goes on to argue that the commissioners missed the deadline for appointing members of the “con committee” and that the auditor must do so.

Emerson cited RCW 29A.32.280, which states that “for each measure from a unit of local government that is included in a local voters’ pamphlet, the legislative authority of that jurisdiction shall, not later than forty-five days before the publication of the pamphlet, formally appoint a committee to prepare arguments advocating voters’ approval of the measure and shall formally appoint a committee to prepare arguments advocating voters’ rejection of the measure.”

The law goes on to state that “if the legislative authority of a unit of local government fails to make such appointments by the prescribed deadline, the county auditor shall whenever possible make the appointments.”

Island County no longer publishes a voters’ pamphlet, but it is posted online at the auditor’s website. Crider asked to have the statements for the online pamphlet by Sept. 16, according to Emerson.

In an interview after the meeting, Emerson said the date the online pamphlet is posted should be considered the publishing date.

“It is common sense that the intent of the law would carry on in an online version,” she said.

Emerson said the intent of the law is to give the committees at least 45 days to write the statements and her concern was to ensure that both committees had equal and ample time.

At the end of the meeting, Price Johnson noted that a number of people have expressed interest in being on the committees. She made a motion to ask the auditor to make the appointments on both committees.

The motion passed with Price Johnson and Johnson voted in favor and Emerson abstaining.

Emerson explained afterward that she abstained because she felt the motion was unnecessary. Under her reading of the law, the auditor didn’t need to be asked, but was obliged to make the appointments.

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