When Jefferson County’s Commissioners meet each Monday morning, one thing you can predict is that the public comment period will almost always include James Fritz.
“James Fritz,” he always intones as he stands at the podium in the commissioners’ chambers in the basement of the Jefferson County Courthouse for his allotted three minutes. “271 Crutcher Road, Port Townsend.”
Since January, he has spoken at every commissioners meeting save two. A general contractor for 30 years, Fritz retired in Port Townsend. The 78-year-old says he has been attending the meetings since 2005, as a way to be a “moderating influence.”
His list of topics vary, and are often influenced by other speakers or by world events.
“If I didn’t come, they’d think they’re doing a good job,” he said. “I’ve got to comment on what the problems are. And from time to time give them a compliment when something is going well.”
County commissioner meetings are well attended. This week, at their meeting on April 8, 17 people came and 11 of them spoke during the public comment period. At the March 4 meeting, it was standing room only, and county staff had to bring in extra chairs.
Topics come and go. In the fall, citizens who were critical of the county’s shooting range ordinance would often come to the meetings to speak their piece on the issue. More recently, the issue of aerial spraying on clear-cut timberlands has attracted speakers as has the issue of zoning regulations for the development of marijuana growing facilities.
There are days when the 20 chairs in the room are mostly empty. But with “near perfect attendance,” Fritz is there. He sits in the same chair each week, putting his baseball cap on it to save the spot when he stands. And if he is there, he will speak.
Along with Fritz is a group of regulars. When the room is emptier than normal, the commissioners can still rely on George Yount, John Hamilton, Craig Durgan and Tom Thiersch to be there along with Fritz.
“I’m retired, so it’s possible to come each week,” said Hamilton, who usually sits in the back row. “It helps keep me informed of what is going on. And I like listening to the public comments.”
In front of Hamilton sits Yount, who is the former manager of the Port of Port Townsend and interested in economic development issues.
“I’m just a mouse on the wall,” Yount said. He normally lets Fritz do the talking, although has been known to get up and give a public comment from time to time.
Yount, who is 80 years old, has been coming off and on to commissioner meetings since 1985.
“Some of us started coming because there was a time when the commissioners were just getting hammered by the Republicans,” he said. “They’d take the whole public comment period. That’s not a great way to start your day. So we would come just to sit and be a witness.”
Over the years, he said, many of the issues have remained the same. The development of a sewer system in Port Hadlock has been a steady issue since he started coming to meetings.
Meanwhile, the question of economic development is one the group of regulars don’t always agree on. They’re often in the midst of a debate at 8:45 a.m., as they sit waiting for the commissioners to start the meeting.
“Because we don’t have big box stores, people just go and spend their money in Sequim or down in Silverdale,” Fritz said. He is a proponent of adding retail stores in the county, specifically in the Discovery Bay area.
Yount doesn’t agree. He thinks the area would never work as an economic center, because it’s not an area where people would stop to shop.
Meanwhile, Craig Durgan thinks the county needs to make an immediate switch to being more focused on development.
“When the sewer gets built in Hadlock, the next step is we want to see some housing being built,” he said to the commissioners at Monday’s meeting.
For their part, the county commissioners take time to respond to each public comment that gets made.
Recently the Seattle City Council got into hot water because of their treatment of a man giving public comment.
“It’s real discouraging to come up here and see all the heads down,” said Richard Schwartz, who was planning to comment about the corrosion of democracy at a Seattle City Council meeting on March 11.
When he asked for the council members to give him their attention, he did not receive the response he was hoping for.
“You’re on a two-minute timer here, so let’s go,” said council member Debora Juarez who was presiding over the meeting.
The video of this interaction went viral online. In the video, several council members are visible and appear to be looking down, or at their phones. Soon after the video gained attention, council member Lorena Gonzalez issued an apology.
“Listening and learning from our constituents during public comment is an important part of my responsibility as an elected official. I apologize to the people of Seattle who believe we missed the mark on March 11,” Gonzalez said.
That isn’t the case in Jefferson County.
“We should be humbled at the fact that we can be this close to our commissioners,” Yount said. “They’re very approachable. They’re people. That’s unique for Jefferson County. How many people are on a first name basis with their commissioners?”
Coming to the meetings every week has given each of these regulars a deeper understanding of the issues the county faces; from development, to dealing with the Navy, to environmental issues. Many of the issues have stayed the same, Yount said.
“The problem is, the democratic process is slow,” he said. “These issues are complex. Complex enough for us to sit here and listen to what they have to say.”
And whether or not the commissioners will take the advice of their citizens, these “watchdogs” of local democracy are there to give it.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Fritz said. “And I’m squeaky.”