Charter backers rake in money

Clark Forward PAC campaign donations exceed $65,000

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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A Home Rule Charter

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Clark Forward contributors

Donors of more than $1,000:

Ed Lynch $10,000

David Nierenberg $10,000

Elizabeth Austin $5,000

Ken Fisher $5,000

Sherri Fisher $5,000

Jean Kuni $5,000

Robert Lewis $5,000

Jo Marie Hansen $2,500

Steve Hansen $2,500

Jan Oliva $2,500

Steve Oliva $2,500

John Rudi $2,500

Michele Rudi $2,500

Gregory Goodwin $2,000

For the past few months, backers of a measure that would significantly change the county’s form of government have been quietly amassing a war chest.

All told, the Vote Charter Yes campaign has collected $65,170 in contributions, the majority of the money coming from a handful of deep-pocketed philanthropists and business leaders.

But with the campaign expected to heat up in the coming weeks, its organizers have barely tapped their coffers. With 12 weeks until voters will tackle the topic in the general election, members of the pro-home rule charter committee are sitting on the money, weighing their options on how to spend it.

The money has been flowing into Clark Forward, a political action committee. The entity, created by former County Commissioner Steve Stuart and Auditor Greg Kimsey, predates the Vote Charter Yes campaign and was created to champion the charter review process.

While there will undoubtedly be opposition to the pro-charter campaign, no PAC has been formed for the express purpose of countering it, according to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.

The Vote Charter Yes campaign arose in the days and weeks following approval of the charter by an elected board of freeholders.

Members of the campaign committee are now using the existing PAC as a way of meeting campaign disclosure laws and pooling financial resources without filing new paperwork with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. Significant amounts of money began trickling into Clark Forward starting in July. And so far, the PAC has spent less than $1,000, according to the PDC.

“It is very exciting for us to be able to begin with that sort of financial support,” said Betty Sue Morris, a member of the Vote Charter Yes committee.

While the campaign held a kickoff event Tuesday night, there still isn’t consensus among campaign organizers about how the money will be spent.

Morris said the committee behind the pro-charter campaign, on which she sits, was still working to hash out how to spend the money, the amount of which has exceeded expectations.

Other members of the pro-charter campaign say the money will be useful in drumming up grass-roots support for the measure, whose intricacies may be lost on most voters.

The home-rule charter was written by an elected board of freeholders who approved it in May and directed it to the general election ballot. Of the 15 freeholders, state Rep. Liz Pike, Peter Silliman and Tracy Wilson voted against it.

The introduction of money into the campaign signifies a turning point, campaign organizers say.

“It is important to have that pot of money,” said Patricia Reyes, the treasurer for Clark Forward. “Even more than the money, the support is huge.”

Top donors to the campaign include philanthropists Ed Lynch and David Nierenberg, who both have given $10,000 apiece. Ken Fisher, the California-based founder and chief executive of Fisher Investments, donated $5,000, which his wife matched.

Other big-money donors include Steve and Jan Oliva, who donated $2,500 apiece. They made their money in the pharmacy business as owners of Hi-School Pharmacy Inc. and in 2012 were named philanthropists of the year by the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington.

Nierenberg, campaign members say, was instrumental in bringing the high-profile donors to the table. Most of the big-money donations came after Nierenberg sent a letter to friends asking them to pony up cash for the pro-charter campaign.

He’s no stranger to raising money for political causes and candidates. A decades-long friend of Mitt Romney, Nierenberg was involved in regional fundraising efforts for the Republican’s 2012 presidential bid.

Nierenberg declined to comment on his efforts, saying in an email that his donation would “speak for me.”

Morris, the former county commissioner who’s helping to lead the pro-charter campaign, said all of the donors contributed to Clark Forward because they supported efforts to pass a new charter.

The home-rule charter would transition the county away from the cookie-cutter approach to county government, as spelled out in the state constitution.

Six of Washington’s 39 counties have home-rule charters in place. In Clark County’s case, the proposed charter calls for expanding the board of commissioners from three members to five, changing their titles to “councilors,” cutting their pay to $53,000 annually, stripping them of their ability to hire and fire department heads and implementing a countywide initiative and referendum process.

Under the terms of the charter, one of the county councilors would also act as the chairman and serve at-large.

County voters dismissed past attempts to implement a home-rule charter in 1982, 1997 and 2002. This time around, backers hope to push through a charter they say is leaner and easier to understand than those from the past.

But opponents of the changes say they’d drastically shift power away from an elected board and into the hands of an appointed county manager.

A resolution presented to the Clark County Republicans argues that the home-rule charter “removes the power from the voter and the commissioners, and tips the scale in favor of more power to an unelected manager, staff and an at-large Council Chair.”

Not all Republicans side with their party’s resolution, however. Kimsey, the county’s auditor and the co-creator of Clark Forward in addition to being a Republican, said he supports the pro-charter efforts. Sheriff Garry Lucas, another prominent Republican, sits on the Vote Charter Yes campaign committee.

Campaign organizers plan to continue their push to rake in more cash, Morris said.

While the campaign has no definite scheme on how it will spend the money it’s gathered so far, it will likely use some of it on campaign mailers to “educate” people, Morris said. That’s a tactic previous attempts to approve a charter lacked, she said.

“People know a lot about the federal government because they study that in school,” she said. “What they don’t understand is local government.”