In Our View: Listening to the People

Public apathy in home rule charter has been replaced by robust interest



Public interest in changing Clark County's form of government has changed; so has the attitude of county commissioners. Asking the public to become more engaged in local government is a good thing. And, although The Columbian has opposed reconsidering a home rule charter (citing three rejections by voters and what until recently appeared to be broad public apathy), it's hard to fault county commissioners for reconsidering home rule again.

Two years ago, only two people testified at a public hearing on creating a home rule charter. Tuesday night was different: 25 people testified at the commissioners meeting. Most of them — including a state senator, the county auditor, the county assessor and the county clerk — supported letting voters decide on the change.

As a result, the commissioners unanimously voted to include on the Nov. 5 ballot the election of 15 partisan freeholders who will launch the long, complicated process of deliberating and proposing changes to commissioners, then to voters. The changes could include creating for voters the power of initiative and referendum, expanding the number of commissioners from three to five, electing a county executive, changing some county elected posts to nonpartisan positions and changing some elected positions to appointed roles.

Each of those changes is a potential improvement, most notably moving from three county commissioners to five. That would prevent two-person control of our community's most important decisions. It would make more difficult, for example, the hiring of an essentially unqualified person for director of environmental services, as happened recently.

Our opposition to reconsidering a home rule charter withered after Tuesday's meeting, where it was demonstrated that public apathy has been supplanted by robust public interest. And as Commissioner David Madore said, the best government "is the government that's closest to the people. 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."

Also, as we've acknowledged in previous editorials, some county positions (auditor, assessor, clerk and sheriff) should in no way be tied to political affiliation. Virtually every candidate for those positions whom we've interviewed over the years has been reluctant to discuss pure politics and for good reason. None of those tasks should be tied to whether the official is a member of the Republican, Democratic or any other political party.

It's also noteworthy that, although only six of Washington's 39 counties have adopted home rule charters, four include large or midsize cities: King (Seattle), Pierce (Tacoma), Snohomish (Everett) Whatcom (Bellingham). Maybe it's time for Clark County — No. 5 among the counties in population — to join that group.

One caution: Although there are plenty of possible upsides to home rule, residents should be alert to the possibility of opening the door and having the devil walk through. Anything could happen here. Still, the chief benefit to conducting this process one more time is for elected officials to more greatly involve — and listen to — the governed.