John Laird: People of Clark County deserve separation of powers

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Imagine the current train wreck of a Congress operating without the checks and balances of a liberal president and a conservative Supreme Court. Imagine also our state Legislature functioning without the veto power of the executive branch (the governor) or the oversight of the judiciary (the state Supreme Court).

Those horrifying hypotheticals are rash realities in Clark County. Commissioners run roughshod over their dual dominion of executive and legislative powers, with far too little transparency and a glaring shortage of accountability.

This might not be a problem in a small government such as a fire, school or cemetery district. But in a sprawling county government that provides about 80 types of services to 440,000 people, using 1,600 employees and an annual budget of $360 million, separation of powers is more than just necessary. It's vital to taxpayers and voters who deserve more transparency and accountability.

Separation of powers is one of the major reasons the people of King (Seattle), Pierce (Tacoma) and Snohomish (Everett) counties chose to govern themselves by home rule charters. And removing administrative power from Clark County commissioners -- while preserving their legislative powers -- is driving the home rule movement here.

This reform campaign is not about Republicans or Democrats, although it's no secret that the blatant abuse of power here by conservative commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke provided the initial spark. Liberals are equally adept at flexing control free from the separation of powers that inspired our Founding Fathers to design the world's best government.

To wit, when the biomass project was brewing in Clark County government a few years ago, critics assailed the ghastly idea of building a wood-burning power plant in downtown Vancouver. Their pleas were ignored. Although the proposal ultimately met its deserved demise, it wasn't until after almost a half-million taxpayer dollars were wasted by our cash-strapped county.

In Seattle, Tacoma or Everett, such wild goose chases are subject to one more layer of scrutiny. And here, conceivably, an elected county executive could tamp down the dangerous sparks of ideological brush fires.

It's difficult to tell the most egregious part of Madore's and Mielke's appointment of buddy Don Benton as county environmental services director. Was it the virtual secrecy with which the decision was steamrolled, or Benton's stupefying lack of qualifications for the job? But this much we know: When you entrust both the policy-setting and administrative powers of a large county to just two people (a majority of three commissioners), don't be shocked by the outcome.

Killing bad ideas

Many observers of the Legislature justify the clumsiness of that body by pointing out that Olympia is a place where there are a hundred ways to kill a bad bill. In Clark County, though, there's only one way to kill a bad idea, and -- for now -- that way leads through Madore and Mielke.

Retired Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, when he was auditor of Thurston County in 1979, wrote a position paper advocating a home rule charter there. Without such reform, he explained, the "same people who pass the ordinances and make budgetary appropriations will continue to have power over the major portion of the county administration. Such a system allows for an extraordinary amount of power to lie in the hands of a few people. Problems of abuse of power, apparent abuse of power, conflicts of interest and apparent conflicts of interest are rampant under such a system."

Sound familiar, Clark County?

Reed also pointed out in 1979: "As the unparalleled success of the U.S. Constitution has been analyzed over the past 190 years, the 'separation of powers' concept is given much credit."

Reed's reform efforts 34 years ago fell short. If our community's reform efforts fail now, we can expect no end to the continued cronyism and serial surprises.