Home rule has rocky history in Clark County

Turmoil in government again brings issue to fore

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: June 24, 2013, 12:10 PM

 

Former home rule vote

The last time Clark County voted on home rule was Nov. 5, 2002. The results of adopting the charter failed by a slim margin, and only one change to county government would have been approved had the charter passed; two other changes were rejected. The change that won support would have made it so commissioners would be elected only by voters within their own district rather than by a countywide vote.

Here is how the votes came in.

Prop. 1: Should the home rule charter be approved?

Yes - 41,572

No - 41,759

Prop. 2: If approved, should the charter increase county commissioners from three to five?

Yes - 32,220

No - 52,479

Prop. 3: If approved, should the charter allow voters to elect commissioners by their district only?

Yes - 48,761

No - 34,848

Prop. 4: If approved, should the charter include the powers of initiative and referendum?

Yes - 36,418

No - 40,990

In recent elections, District 1, now represented by Republican Tom Mielke, has trended Republican. District 2, represented by Republican David Madore, has been a battleground district. District 3, represented by Democrat Steve Stuart, has trended Democrat.

If Clark County commissioners vote to move forward with establishing a home rule charter on Tuesday evening, they'll begin a process that could take over two years to complete and has been turned away by voters three times in the past.

But with the process being discussed during a turbulent political time in the county, there's a chance the fourth time will be the charm.

Commissioner Tom Mielke, a Republican, is introducing the resolution at the same time a group opposing him is clamoring for the change to county government.

That opposition is roiling over the decision by Mielke and Commissioner David Madore, also a Republican, to appoint state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as the county's director of environmental services.

That group broached the topic of home rule at a meeting last month, saying it's a way to dilute the power of a three member board that holds both legislative and executive authority.

Through the turmoil, Mielke has remained steadfast in his effort to bring home rule to voters. His guiding principle is the action hands more power

to the people in choosing how the county operates.

That means the two sides agree on one thing: this could completely change the game of county politics.

What is home rule?

The 1889 Washington Constitution allowed the legislature to set a standardized form of county government. The form that group settled on is what you see now in Clark County: three elected county commissioners, nominated by district and elected countywide. The rules also set election standards for other county offices.

The only change counties could make to the system is to expand the commission board to five members. But in 1948, votes decided they wanted more control, and approved the home rule process.

Home rule lets voters rearrange their government how they see fit, as long as it falls within the laws of the state and abides by the U.S. Constitution.

Voters can grant themselves the power of initiative and referendum authority within the county, expand the number of commissioners serving on the board, choose to separate legislative and executive powers by electing a county executive, make elected officials nonpartisan or change some elected positions to appointed roles.

How does it work?

Successfully navigating the process, and having the voters approve the final product, is an esoteric undertaking. According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, just six of Washington's 39 counties have adopted a home rule charter.

If Clark County commissioners approve Tuesday's vote, it will begin the first of two steps in the election process.

First, a board of 15 freeholders will be elected by voters in this November's general election. If commissioners stick to their current resolution, those freeholders will be partisan on the ballot, and each of the three commissioner districts will receive five freeholders.

The freeholders then draft the home rule charter as they see fit. There is no time limit set on the freeholders to accomplish this task, but the county's rough timeline hopes to see a final product by some point in 2015.

The final product eventually heads to voters one final time, asking if a charter should be adopted and, if so, what items should be included in the new charter.

Clark County voters turned away charter measures in 1982, 1987 and 2002.

The most recent time the topic of home rule charter was broached, in 2011, commissioners killed the process before sending a vote on freeholders to the people.

The reason for halting the process was a lack of community support.

Next steps

Commissioners meet on the matter at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 4, at the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St. Public comment will be accepted at the meeting.

Mielke, as the catalyst of the home rule movement, appears ready to support his own resolution.

Commissioner Steve Stuart was eager to second Mielke's efforts in setting the hearing on the topic. Still, Stuart has yet to indicate how he will vote on the matter.

Madore has been vexed by some of the possible outcomes of home rule, saying the idea of an elected county executive would be a negative move for the county. But he has yet to say how he will vote.

Home Rule Counties

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, just six of Washington's 39 counties have adopted a home rule charter.

Each of the charter counties approved the powers of initiative and referendum, while choosing their own structure of elected and appointed officials.

• King County was the first to complete the process in 1969. King residents elect a nine member county council, a county executive, assessor, prosecuting attorney, sheriff and director of elections. The county's auditor, county administrative officer, treasury operations manager, clerk and medical examiner are appointed positions. All positions are nonpartisan, except for the prosecuting attorney.

• Whatcom County established its new charter in 1978. Residents elect a seven member county council, a county executive, assessor, prosecuting attorney, auditor, sheriff and treasurer clerk. The county clerk, deputy administrator and medical examiner are appointed. All positions are nonpartisan, except for the prosecuting attorney.

• Clallam County established its new charter in 1979. The county stuck with a partisan, three-member board of county commissioners. The assessor, prosecuting attorney/coroner, auditor, sheriff, treasurer and community development director are all elected. The county administrator and clerk are appointed. All positions are nonpartisan except for the commissioners and the prosecuting attorney/coroner.

• Snohomish County established its charter in 1980. Residents elect a five member county council, a county executive, prosecuting attorney, assessor, auditor, sheriff, clerk and treasurer. The medical examiner is appointed. The county council, county executive and prosecuting attorney are the only partisan offices.

• Pierce County established its charter in 1981. Residents elect a seven member county council, a county executive, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, assessor-treasurer and an auditor. All elected offices are partisan. The clerk and medical examiner are appointed.

• San Juan County established a charter in 2005. Residents elected a six member county council, a prosecuting attorney/coroner, assessor, auditor, clerk, sheriff and treasurer. The only partisan office is the prosecuting attorney/coroner. The county administrator is appointed. The county went through a charter review in 2012, reducing the six member board to three.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov;erik.hidle@columbian.com.