Home rule given county approval

Freeholders will be elected in November to draft new charter

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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The process to potentially redraft Clark County's form of government -- to home rule -- is under way.

Clark County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to move forward with a November election of 15 partisan freeholder positions, five each from the three commissioner districts.

Those freeholders will then undertake the process of drafting new rules for how the county operates, and, within the next two years, is expected to present voters with the option of adopting those rules.

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.

County commissioners voted to move forward with a home rule charter after hearing from 25 individuals testifying on the matter. The vast majority of public comment was in favor of undertaking home rule, with 18 commenters saying they'd like commissioners to proceed.

Several elected officials spoke in favor of a new county charter including state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, county Auditor Greg Kimsey, county Assessor Peter Van Nortwick and county Clerk Scott Weber, all Republicans. Former county commissioner Vern Veysey, also a Republican, also spoke in favor of home rule.

Rivers told Commissioners Tom Mielke, a Republican, and Steve Stuart, a Democrat, that she was proud of them for following through with something the two men discussed in 2005 when they ran against each other for the seat Stuart now occupies.

"I wanted to come and express my pride tonight," Rivers said. "My pride in both of you because I know how hard it is from time to time to keep that well intentioned campaign promise. It's hard, but it is important. It restores credibility to our government. It restores credibility, or maintains your credibility, and I just want to say I am so very proud of both of you for following through on your commitment to the people."

Forward momentum

Stuart, who choose not to move forward with home rule in 2011, said he did so then as only two people testified at a public hearing on the matter.

"So at that time, my belief was that there was no momentum then to move forward," Stuart said. "I believe there is now."

Commissioner David Madore, a Republican, had previously expressed some reservations about the issue.

But on Tuesday night he said he had faith in the people that they would "keep it simple" and not attempt to change too much.

"The best government as I can see it, is the government that's closest to the people," Madore said. "And I can't think of a better way to get people engaged than to give them initiative and referendum. That empowers the people to hold county commissioners accountable. That's a good thing."

Madore also said he trusted the work Mielke had done as the architect of bringing home rule to a vote.

Mielke, who has pushed for the process to begin since his re-election to the board last November, was visibly pleased with the unanimous vote.

Throughout the process, Mielke has said his goal has been to give more power to the people.

"We respect 'we the people,' " Mielke said to the crowd gathered Tuesday night. "And you are 'we the people.' "

Lately, Mielke has faced anger from residents who opposed his and Madore's decision to appoint state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as the county's director of environmental services.

Still, Mielke stuck to his belief that voters should be trusted in deciding how county government will best work for them.

"It gives the people more part in their government," Mielke said. "Holding me more accountable; and I accept that."

Other speakers didn't outright oppose the home rule charter, but some expressed concern that more discussion should be had on the matter.

County Treasurer Doug Lasher, a Democrat, presented a number of questions he would like commissioners to first consider.

And as commissioners found bipartisan agreement among themselves Tuesday night, it appears the county's local Republican chapter found agreement with Lasher.

Local GOP leader unsure

Lynda Wilson, chair of the Clark County Republican Party, expressed concern over the move and said she agreed with Lasher's assertion that perhaps more time be taken.

"I think it's important to delineate specifically how and what needs to be modernized before we set the course to change the entire way of government," Wilson said.

Wilson's statements appear to be contradicting the local chapter's 2012 platform, which states a goal to "enact a county charter to allow citizens the right to petition for redress of grievances and establish checks and balances at the local level."

Further, former Commissioner Marc Boldt, a Republican whom Madore ousted from office in last November's election, was disciplined by the local chapter of the Republican party for not being conservative enough in the leadup to last year's election. Among the reasons given for Boldt's punishment was his not supporting a home rule charter.

Christian Berrigan spoke on the matter saying he had mixed feeling on the matter. And while he said he did like some potential outcomes of a home rule charter, he hoped the matter wasn't being undertaken as an effort to "estimate the outcome of political power."

At the end of the meeting, Stuart made it clear he believed people need the chance to solve a problem of political power if they see fit to do so.

"The theory that has been raised is this is a solution in search of a problem," Stuart said. "For me, the problem of vesting immense, unchecked, unbalanced power in a majority of two is a problem that needs to be solved. However the citizens decide to address that, will be up to them. And ultimately the voters will decide."

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