History Of The Ferry Committee’s Mail-Out Ballot

History of the Guemes Island Ferry Committee’s mail-out ballot. 

In 2001, the County Commissioners contracted a comprehensive study of the Guemes Island Ferry by Berk & Associates and Richard Kiesser.  The final report was published March, 2003.  The report commented on all aspects of the Ferry Operation and made many specific recommendations still relevant today. In regard to the Ferry Committee, the report recommended a series of changes including doing away with electing the ferry committee members by vote at the Hall (now referred to as the Community Center).  The report recommended that the Ferry Committee generate changes to normalize its operating procedures and stated:

“The County Commissioners should adopt a Resolution chartering the Ferry Committee and specifying its purpose, authority and operating procedures including procedures for membership and, reporting to the Commission.  By-laws should be created that define the committee’s operating structure, including how members are elected and with what frequency.”   

The Ferry Committee fulfilled all of the above recommendations by creating a set of by-laws including defining and routinizing its elections. The County never adopted a “Resolution chartering the Ferry Committee . . .” and never gave a reason for its inaction.

Meanwhile, the Ferry Committee was instructed to hold elections that were inclusive of ferry ridership and have at least one position on the committee available to residents of Skagit County.  The question became how best to do this?  The Ferry Committee recommended that the surest way to reach a majority of residents of Guemes Island was via mail-out ballot to the registered voters of the island precinct. This mail-out ballot would include renters registered to vote on the island who were not property owners.  In order to have positions on the ferry committee open to all residents of Skagit County, the committee included in their by-laws that anyone 18 years or older with a valid Washington State driver’s license could run for a position on the ferry committee. This ensured that even island property owners outside of Skagit County were eligible to run.  

The Ferry Committee was under the strong impression that the County would help defray the cost of the mail-out ballots. The Burke Report stated:  “The Public Works Department should provide liaison and administrative support for FAC (Ferry Advisory Committee) mailings, agendas, meeting and any other authorized Committee activities.”  The Committee soon learned that although the County would supply the island’s voter registration list, all other costs including printing and mailing the ballot, were left to the committee to pay. Still the Committee decided that the mail-out ballot was the best way to attain the highest turnout for the vote and so continued to pay all election costs upfront. (Costs for the last GIFC election with two candidates running for one seat exceeded $900.00 paid upfront by Committee member Allen Bush.)

On December 12, 2021 a group led by Sandy McKean, then on the Ferry Committee, held a meeting at the Community Center to change the ferry committee charter.  The changes would have replaced the mail-out ballot to voting at the Community Center or a “polling station” on the island:  “Paper ballots may be obtained by eligible voters by signing in either at the annual meeting or at a polling station. The polling station shall be located on Guemes Island and shall be open for voting during specified hours on specified days prior to the annual meeting.”  

The group backing the charter changes ensured that a cadre of “aggrieved” non-resident property owners spoke, each maintaining they had been denied the right to vote for the Ferry Committee despite being island property tax payers. None commented that they cannot vote for the Guemes Island Fire Commissioners nor for its Cemetery Commissioners. None mentioned that they cannot vote for the Skagit County Commissioners if they reside outside Skagit County. None pointed out that the year-round working residents of the island, including long term renters and on-island property owning tax payers, pay more in ferry fares, a form of tax, than the non-resident island property owner.  A study a few years ago estimated that the non-resident property owner paid about $500 in fares annually whereas the year-round working resident paid fares in excess of $3600.00.  

Further, anyone including non-resident property owners could voice their concerns to a ferry committee member and/or attend the then quarterly ferry committee public meetings. Non-resident property owners with a valid Washington State driver’s license 18 or older can run for membership on the Ferry Committee.  Nor were these non-resident property owners prevented from going directly to Skagit County Public Works ferry management or the County Commissioners.  So the campaign to change the ferry committee by-laws was based on the vacuous argument that non-resident property owners were effectively excluded from participation in matters relevant to the Guemes Island ferry solely because they could not vote for its ferry committee members.  The proposed by-law changes failed to gain the 2/3rds majority necessary to pass.  

-Steve Orsini

Tags: ferry