By Beverly Faxon and Christie Stewart Stein
A series of puzzling, and at times controversial, decisions and actions by the Skagit County Planning Commission led to a push for more transparency from County Commissioners regarding the process of Planning Commissioner appointments. A group of Skagit citizens from Home Rule Skagit, as well as other local Good Government advocates, are behind that push. There have been small successes in this process, but more needs to be done. At a time when issues of growth are so crucial, the power of the Planning Commission seems to put them in the driver’s seat of the county’s future.
What makes the Planning Commission different from, and potentially more influential than, other County advisory boards?
The Planning Commission is often confused by county residents with the Planning Department. The Skagit County Planning and Development Services Department is staffed by professional planners, other technical staff, and clerical staff. They work directly for County government to develop land use policy, regulations, and issue building permits.
The Planning Commission(PC), on the other hand, is composed of unpaid citizen volunteers, appointed by the County Commissioners. The Skagit County website describes the role of the Planning Commission this way:
“The Planning Commission is the county’s principal citizen advisory body on land use policy and regulations.”
One reason the Planning Commission stands out is because it wields much power over Skagitonians’ daily lives. What can be built and where in unincorporated Skagit County, and what regulations govern that development, all fall under the purview of the Planning Commission.
The PC’s formal role as the “interface with the public” on land use and planning policy gives them enormous influence with County Commissioners. Indeed, while the role of the PC is explicitly advisory, it is extremely rare for the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) to vote contrary to the recommendation of the PC.
In fact, County Commissioner Ron Wesen said just that to the Skagit Valley Herald when explaining his vote on Comprehensive Plan amendments in 2021,
“Wesen said the County Planning Commission’s recommendation against the proposal carried weight: ‘The reason we have a planning commission is to hear comments and talk to people in the community and come to a recommendation.’”
The State Weighs In
Skagit County Commissioners appoint citizens advisory boards for everything from agricultural policy to low-income housing fund allocations, 35 or so in all.
The PC differs in the weight that its role is given by the State. Many of the citizens advisory boards are authorized only by a resolution of the County Commissioners to share perspectives as needed. A few are created to meet specific requirements of Washington State RCWs. The Board of Equalization and the Law and Justice Council fall in this category, though they have narrowly defined responsibilities. However, although counties may choose between two different configurations, they are required by the State to have a Planning Commission. The authority of the PC is derived from State statute, and its activities are governed by WA State RCWs and the Growth Management Act.
Considering Public Testimony
Another reason the Planning Commission differs from other commissions and committees is the amount of interface it is required to have with the public it serves and represents. On the County website, most of the committees list their regular meeting schedule so members of the public can attend if they choose.
According to County staff, any time there is a code change or a fee schedule change under consideration, strict public notice requirements come into play regardless of what committee is considering the change. This ensures that the public has an opportunity to have their concerns considered in the decision-making process. Recommendations for code changes are central to the work of the Planning Commission, so the requirements for proper public notice are embedded in all their work.
The Board of Equalization similarly operates under these public notice requirements. However, their function is to hear appeals from individual property owners regarding their individual tax assessment. The Planning Commission is tasked with working on code changes that affect all property owners in unincorporated Skagit County. Their scope is not individual; it is county-wide.
The Planning Commission is specifically tasked with hearing and considering public testimony. It is unclear if any other boards or committees are specifically tasked with doing so. Based on the information available on the County website, it appears that most are not.
Taken together, these differences indicate that the PC does have considerably more power than other boards and committees. It also confirms that the PC has the role and responsibility of carefully reflecting the views of county citizens. By taking formal public comment, there is an implicit assumption that PC recommendations reflect not just their own expertise and perspectives—they also represent public opinion.
Controversial Actions/Decisions by the PC Raise Alarms
A series of controversial actions and puzzling decisions by the PC in recent years alerted members of Home Rule Skagit (HRS) and their allies to sit up and take note of this powerful body. Several examples include:
*Spring 2020- PC tosses the overwhelming positive public comment and hours of testimony from qualified scientists on a proposal to improve protections for heron rookeries. Eric Hall attended that PC meeting.
“I remember vividly hearing several PC members talk about how they see herons everywhere so protecting them wasn’t needed due to their personal observation that the population was not threatened.”
One PC member supplants all the prior testimony with uncorroborated “science” found on the internet. Hall recalls,
“I was left speechless by this. The Commission voted down any notion of protecting the largest heron rookery on the West coast essentially because it was the largest.”
*Fall 2020- The PC exceeds its statutory authority (according to a memo from County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich), and votes to censure one of its members for expressing a minority concern about flawed deliberative process directly to County Commissioners. The entrenched PC leadership cites “violation” of provisions in a loosely worded draft of updated bylaws, which the PC had not yet formally adopted. There is no established basis for censuring a Commission member who had concerns about the PC process and raised those concerns with the Commissioners. The fact that the censured PC member was a candidate for County Commissioner at the time, and that the censure received prominent press, inevitably raises disturbing questions about possible political motivation.
* Throughout 2021 and 2022, drafts of a state-mandated update to the Shoreline Management Program fail to mention climate change and sea level rise. According to witnesses, the PC resists inclusion of those words in the document. In spite of ample comments from the public and testimony from qualified scientists, PC members insist it is the property owner’s responsibility to avoid inundation, site their house properly, etc., and that the county has no concern in these issues. Yet, as citizen observer Marlene Finley puts it,
“The real costs are passed along to all of us when it becomes an emergency. It is as if the PC is deaf to sea level and climate modeling data.”
A Call for Transparency, Accountability in PC Appointments
While these eyebrow-raising events were unfolding, the HRS members and their allies began meeting with County Commissioners to discuss their concern. They expressed dissatisfaction about the apparent private property rights bias of the present PC. They also raised concern about the PC’s apparent disregard for science-based decision-making, and for public comments.
They made three specific requests:
1)The PC appointment process should be consistent and transparent. Appointment decisions should not be buried in a Consent Agenda, but considered separately.
2) There should be records in the County files documenting the qualifications and organizational affiliations of all Planning Commissioners.
3) County employees should not be permitted to serve on the Planning Commission because of the possible conflict of interest this implies.
The HRS group emphasizes that PC appointments are so important they should never be made under a shadow of suspicion. To ensure transparency and accountability, there must be no hint that PC appointments have been made in exchange for any other favor such as the vote of another Commissioner on an unrelated matter. It is in the County Commissioners’ best interest to be sure this process is seen by the public to be scrupulously aboveboard.
Discussions Result in Several Improvements
It has been positive to see that some changes are slowly being made in the PC appointment process.
Since the citizen meetings with County Commissioners, PC appointments have been considered separately from the omnibus Consent Agenda so that observers can hear the discussion.
During her term as Chair of the BoCC in 2021, Commissioner Lisa Janicki initiated regular joint meetings of the BoCC and PC in order for County Commissioners “to provide guidance and direction” to the PC. She also moved the PC bylaws revision to the back burner. This action was helpful as it appeared to observers that the draft bylaws were taking an ideological turn, more to justify certain perspectives than to safeguard a process in the best interest of the public.
Although County records still seem to lack letters of application from several PC members, the Planning Commission webpage item called Get to Know Your Planning Commissioners does now include information about the background, experience, and interests of all nine Planning Commissioners. It does not include a formal listing of organizational affiliations to give transparency about potential conflicts of interest.
On September 27, 2021, County Commissioner Peter Browning dissented in a vote to re-appoint a PC member representing the prevailing private property rights perspective of the PC. In his comments, he called for a clear, written policy from the Planning Department to govern PC appointments .
Commissioners Pass Resolution on PC Appointment Process
Following on Commissioner Browning’s call for a written process governing PC appointments, HRS members and their allies asked that the public have an opportunity to give comments on the draft. At that time, neither Commissioner Browning nor Commissioner Janicki could clearly describe what the process might be for drafting the procedure and who would be responsible.
The public did not get an opportunity to weigh in before County Commissioners adopted a resolution on December 14, 2021. This is unfortunate, because, while it is undoubtedly a good start to have a written procedure, there remains a lack of specifics, suggesting more work needs to be done.
The “Whereas…” section at the beginning of the resolution recognizes several important principles. For instance,
“the County desires a consistent and transparent approach for the appointment of Planning Commissioners.”
Perhaps more importantly,
“the County desires to appoint planning commissioners with qualifications relevant to the planning functions on which they will be involved and have a diversity of background and life experiences reflecting the residents of Skagit County”.
A well thought-out process is missing, and follow-up for appointments could help ensure these recognized principles have the best chance of succeeding. And yet, the process for recruitment, and for ensuring a diversity that reflects County residents, is still problematic.
Recruitment and Application Process Still Fall Short
Sections 1 and 2 of the resolution primarily address the intention to maintain a “pool” of qualified PC applicants, how that pool will be maintained, and minimum eligibility requirements for applicants. Currently, it is difficult to envision how a pool of qualified applicants can be maintained without diligent ongoing recruitment. As County Commissioners have noted in multiple meetings, it is very hard to find people who are willing to serve.
Planning Commissioners are volunteers. The time demands are great with usually two long evening meetings per month, and mountains of very detailed reading and study to reach difficult and challenging decisions. Recently many very qualified potential PC applicants have expressed wariness of the contentious character of the current PC, and often decline to apply.
Adding to the difficulty in recruiting, multiple recent applicants expressed frustration with the County’s inept handling of their applications. In at least two cases, applicants received no acknowledgement that their application had been received. They were contacted three months later and asked if they still wanted to be interviewed. Another highly qualified applicant was not interviewed at all for an interim appointment, suggesting that the County Commissioner making the appointment had already decided on their choice without considering other applicants. It is unclear whether the Planning Department or the Commissioners’ Office is responsible for communicating with applicants, but improvement in the process certainly seems necessary.
Guidance for the Consideration of Nominees
Section 3 of the resolution, covering Guidance for the Consideration of Nominees, attempts to address some of the concerns raised about the need for the PC to fully reflect the diversity of Skagit’s population. It includes an expectation that:
“The Board of Commissioners should appoint Planning Commission members who—
a) represent varying geographic, demographic, and socioeconomic perspectives and
b) ensure effective representation of unincorporated areas of the county;
c) collectively, represent a broad range of local opinion, experience, and expertise, and are entrusted to make recommendations reflecting the broad interests of the community;
d) are able to comply at all times with the appearance of fairness doctrine and any applicable
county ethics and conflicts of interest policies.”
Items c and d get to the heart of several of the expressed concerns. To represent a “broad range of local opinion, experience, and expertise” would require a willingness and intention on the part of County Commissioners to seek out appropriate representatives. This is not yet materializing in Planning Commission appointments.
Broad Range of Local Opinion, Experience, Expertise Still Lacking
For example, while one of the nine currently serving PC members leads a construction business and states a focus on on-site energy generating capacity, this kind of experience and perspective is under-represented on the current PC. (See more on PC representation.)
In fact, the two most recent appointments for District 1 from Commissioner Ron Wesen indicate in their letters of application they are members of the Skagit Citizens Alliance For Property Rights (CAPR). Skagit CAPR explicitly states their mission includes “Raise awareness of and strongly oppose threats to private property use, especially from ill-conceived, top-down planning schemes imposed by government bureaucrats” and “Educate the public about the concerted attack on private property by agencies at all levels of government, as well as Environmental NGO’s.”
The Skagit CAPR mission suggests that members are suspicious of and resistant to the very idea of government land use planning and regulation. Although this may be one valid perspective to bring to a planning commission, it is problematic to have it be the dominant perspective, especially with no indication that it represents the dominant view of the public.
Three recent applicants who expressed an interest in protecting Skagit’s natural areas, environmental protection, or preparing for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise, were not selected. This leaves a significant gap in perspective to reflect the concerns of a substantial number of Skagitonians.
It should be acknowledged that Commissioner Janicki’s most recent new appointment may broaden the perspectives represented on the PC. This new PC member is coming in expressing experience and interest in housing affordability. This has not appeared to be represented on the PC prior to now.
Potential for Conflicts of Interest
Item d of the resolution makes explicit a requirement that PC members “are able to comply at all times with the appearance of fairness doctrine and any applicable county ethics and conflicts of interest policies”. This remains difficult to monitor. It is not clear how the County handles the need for recusal for any potential conflict of interest on the PC. Records about potential conflicts of interest are incomplete. A public records request in May 2021 related to organizational affiliations and potential conflicts of interest for PC members received this response:
“The Planning Department does not have any records responsive to your request.”
No term limits
According to the Skagit County website,
“The term of office of a Planning Commission member is four years, with no limits on the number of terms a commissioner may serve.”
It appears from the results of a recent public records request that a PC member has merely to ask to continue in order to be reappointed. The two most recent terms to expire in August of 2022 were filled by reappointing PC members to a third 4-year term. There was no public notice of the upcoming openings and no solicitation of new voices. The lack of term limits adds an additional challenge to any effort by County Commissioners to balance perspectives represented on the PC.
The lack of term limits also appears to apply to leadership positions on the PC, chair and vice-chair. Since March 2017, officers of the PC have rotated between the same three PC members who seem to share the same perspective on land use planning. This appears to give undue influence to those individuals, as well as to their perspective.
Accountability Remains Elusive
Because PC members are appointed and not elected, they are really only accountable to the County Commissioners who appoint them. Even though they are appointed to represent the views of the people of Skagit, they cannot be held accountable by those citizens. The public’s only recourse in demanding accountability for PC appointments is at the ballot box, when voting for the County Commissioners who make the appointments. Land use planning rarely rises to a top campaign issue in countywide races in spite of how much it may impact Skagitonians. The public is left with a significant gap in power to effect change.
The Home Rule Skagit members and their allies remain committed. They intend to continue monitoring the work of the PC, and pressing County Commissioners to bring transparency, accountability, and broader representation to the work of the Planning Commission.
You can follow the Planning Commission here. Meetings are generally held twice monthly, and virtual attendance is available. Sign up for email notifications is also available.
Beverly (Bee) Faxon has lived in Skagit Valley for almost forty years, starting as an organic farmer up valley and finally settling outside of Burlington. She worked most of that time at the Skagit Valley Food Co-op as newsletter editor and also taught journalism at Skagit Valley College and English composition at Edmonds Community College.
Christie Stewart Stein has farmed just west of Mount Vernon for 25 years. Her volunteer engagement in the community has included working with women without housing, farmworkers and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and aspiring young farmers.