Freeholders favor commissioner elections by districts

They'd like to keep current system but divide county into 5 districts instead of 3

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Proposed five-district map

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Since they began meeting late last year, the people charged with drafting a new county government have floated significant changes in the way power is divided, and leaned toward a larger number of Clark County commissioners.

But Clark County freeholders indicated Saturday they likely won't stray far from the way elected leaders are now chosen.

A majority of the 15-member group said it would favor electing all commissioners through districts, rather than at-large positions. Such an arrangement would mean candidates are nominated within their respective districts in the primary, then chosen countywide in the general election — the same system used now.

The difference: Clark County would be divided into five districts instead of the current three. Each of the five districts would be represented by a commissioner, though each commissioner would have to be elected by the entire county in the general election.

Earlier concepts would make one or two positions at large, meaning they could come from anywhere in the county. That might include an elected "chair" with different responsibilities than the other commissioners.

But some freeholders said that may create an unintended imbalance and give too much influence to one part of Clark County.

"What I don't want to see is Vancouver becoming to the county what Seattle is to the state of Washington," freeholder Liz Pike said.

Choosing all commissioners through districts also keeps a method that is already familiar to local voters, said freeholder Garry Lucas.

"It has worked for this county for many years," Lucas said. "I don't see a strong reason to change it."

Most freeholders also agreed that elected positions should stay partisan, with candidates identifying themselves as Republican or Democrat. Several appeared to personally prefer a nonpartisan approach but worried that too much change would be difficult for voters to swallow and could jeopardize the entire effort.

"We have to temper what we want with what we can pass," said freeholder Randy Mueller.

Clark County elected 15 freeholders last November. The group is crafting a new county charter, with the goal of putting it to voters later this year.

Six of Washington's 39 counties have home-rule charters, which allow county government to differ from what's outlined in state law. Clark County voters rejected a proposed charter in 2002, and nixed attempts to launch the home-rule process in 1982 and 1997.

The current effort was sparked largely by outrage over two commissioners' appointment of a fellow Republican to head the county's environmental services department.

Separation of powers

Freeholders on Saturday also tackled a topic that remains a work in progress: how legislative and executive powers should be divided in a new county government.

Clark County currently operates with three commissioners serving as the de facto legislative and executive branch. The county administrator acts at the direction of the commissioners.

The draft charter now under consideration would put more executive power in the hands of an appointed county manager. Elected leaders -- called the county "council" in the proposal -- would carry out legislative powers like levying taxes, directing revenue and adopting budgets. The county manager would be the executive officer supervising all administrative offices and departments. Freeholders have discussed creating a "firewall" to protect county staff from commissioner meddling.

That manager, however, could still be hired and fired by a supermajority of the commissioners — in this case, four out of five — according to the draft charter.

Freeholders differed on what exactly the relationship between elected leaders and an appointed county manager should look like. That discussion will continue when the group meets again next weekend.

The freeholders hope to finalize a proposed charter this spring. It will likely go before voters in November.