Commissioners set to vote on pursuing home-rule charter

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

Be Heard

What do you want Commissioners Tom Mielke, Marc Boldt and Steve Stuart to do regarding the home-rule charter proposal?

Email them at http://www.clark.... or call the Board of County Commissioners’ office at 360-397-2232.

Mielke represents District 1, which is north county, Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek; Boldt’s District 2 covers Hockinson and east county; Stuart’s District 3 covers the city of Vancouver.

Clark County commissioners will vote Tuesday whether to go forward with the home-rule charter process.

Commissioner Steve Stuart said earlier this month that, so far, the bipartisan support he’d hoped for has been lacking.

If commissioners vote to go forward, voters will elect 15 freeholders in November who would then have three years to draft a county charter for voters to approve or reject.

Clark County voters have rejected proposed charters three times.

The home-rule process lets counties establish a form of government different from the state’s default three-commissioner model.

A charter could expand the number of commissioners from three to five, impose term limits or change elected positions to appointed ones.

A charter could give residents initiative and referendum powers, just like the ones that are enjoyed statewide.

Another change could be making commissioner elections only districtwide. Currently, commissioner candidates run districtwide in the primary election but countywide in the general election.

While a handful of residents have been on commissioners for more than a year to go through the process again, Stuart said he’s heard from just as many people who’ve told him, “This is stupid. This is a waste of money.”

The Clark County Central Democratic Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the county not go through the process, said Stuart, the only Democrat on the board.

Brandon Vick, chair of the Clark County Republican Party, said the party hasn’t taken an official stance but members like the idea of initiative and referendum powers.

Vick said eight to 10 people have said they would be interested in running for freeholder.

Commissioners decided in January that, if they do go through with the process, they will have the minimum number of 15 freeholders.

Five freeholders would be elected from each commissioner district.

Freeholder candidates would file next month; the positions are unpaid. The freeholders would decide how often they want to meet and then choose what to include in a charter.

When commissioners discussed the issue May 11 during board time, Commissioner Tom Mielke said he’s supportive of going ahead.

“My concern is, a year ago we were where we are today,” Mielke said.

Yes, Stuart said, and we’re still hearing from the same few people.

Four charter proponents attended board time, including Jeanne Schaefer and Chuck Miller. They said the county and the media haven’t done enough to promote the effort.

The Columbian has written about the effort a half-dozen times, including publishing the dates and times of six forums hosted throughout the county for people interested in learning more.

County Administrator Bill Barron and Kelly Sills, the county’s economic development manager, led those sessions.

Barron and Sills also went to a meeting of the Neighborhood Associations of Clark County on April 11.

In total, Barron and Sills spoke to 113 people. And that number includes some people who attended more than one meeting.

The outreach effort cost $5,000, Barron said, including staff time and rental costs.

He estimates that going through the home-rule charter process will cost $100,000. He said that’s a high estimate and there are too many unknowns, such as how often freeholders would meet and how long they’ll take to draft a charter, to calculate a more reliable estimate. Freeholder meetings would be attended by county staffers, including Barron and at least one attorney who would answer questions about what can and cannot be in a charter. Salary costs are included in the estimate, along with mandatory notification requirements and election costs.

Schaefer said the county should have sent a letter to every registered voter who has been a county resident for at least five consecutive years — an eligibility requirement to run for freeholder — to let them know about the effort.

Doing such a mailing would be too expensive, Stuart said.

Schaefer said if initiative and referendum powers could be gained through a charter, they wouldn’t be used “willy-nilly” but could give people a say in major decisions.

“We don’t feel Clark County government is broken,” she said. “We like it.”

If commissioners don’t vote Tuesday to go ahead with the charter process, they will either tell supporters to get a petition to prove there’s community support or put the issue on the ballot as an advisory vote.

A petition would have to be signed by registered voters equal to 10 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last general election. In this case, signature gatherers would have to collect 14,904 names.

Miller said they need to get on with electing freeholders.

“We’re talking initiative and referendum, and electing (commissioners) by district. If they don’t like it, people can vote no,” Miller said.

Commissioner Marc Boldt was not at the meeting. As a state legislator, Boldt introduced a bill three times that would have given residents powers of initiative and referendum without going through a charter process. The commissioners pushed a similar bill this past legislative session but it didn’t make it out of committee.

Six Washington counties — Clallam, King, Pierce, Snohomish, Whatcom and San Juan — have adopted home-rule charters.

Stuart, who can be emailed at steve.stuart@clark.wa.gov, said he wants to hear from people.

“Are we simply hearing from a vocal minority on the right? … I want to actually hear from people. If I’m still concerned, I won’t vote to move it forward,” Stuart said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.