Freeholders eye county executive or manager

Saturday meeting will tackle checks, balances on commissioners

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter




• Previously: In November, Clark County elected 15 freeholders to draft a new county charter to put before voters.

• What’s new: Freeholders have narrowed their focus for a proposed county charter to four elements — separation of powers, number of commissioners, election by district and the powers of initiative/referendum.

• What’s next: Clark County freeholders will meet at 9 a.m. Saturday and Jan. 25 on the sixth floor of the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St. They plan to meet twice a month until they complete a draft of a proposed charter and submit it to the elections office at the end of May.

A majority of the freeholders drafting a Clark County charter believe the existing form of government concentrates too much power in the three-member board of commissioners.

At a meeting Saturday, they will discuss ways to add checks and balances to county government.

It's the first question the 15 freeholders, elected in November, have agreed to tackle: Should the executive powers transfer from the commissioners to an elected county executive or an appointed county manager?

Freeholder Chairwoman Nan Henriksen expects the group will take action Jan. 25 on how to write that section of a proposed charter.

She's upbeat about freeholders' progress after their first three meetings.

"I think there's been a positive atmosphere," Henriksen said. "People are actually listening to each other."

In the coming months, freeholders will move on to three more questions:

• Should the number of county commissioners increase from three to five, or perhaps even more than five?

• Should commissioners be elected by district instead of countywide?

• Should county voters have the powers of initiative and referendum?

Freeholders plan to meet twice a month to complete a draft county charter by the end of May so it will be ready for November's ballot.

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 turned away proposed charters in 2002, 1997 and 1982.

This go-round was precipitated by outrage over two commissioners' appointment of a fellow Republican, state Sen. Don Benton, to the head the county's environmental services department.

Freeholders, however, believe their efforts must transcend the latest headlines.

"What we're trying to come up with is something that can last over time. If we try to create a set of rules just to add a Band-Aid or to circumvent current policymakers, I think we'll fail," said Paul Dennis, a freeholder and head of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, at a Dec. 16 meeting. "We really need to think about tomorrow."

At that same meeting, freeholders began their discussion on the separation of powers in county government.

Former Clark County Commissioner Betty Sue Morris told them, "If you can get two of us going in the same direction, we can tear apart the sheriff's budget, give all of the money to the auditor, and we can rezone the east side of the county and leave for lunch. … That is too much power concentrated in too few people."

Most of the freeholders agree that any proposed charter should separate the legislative and executive authority that now resides with the three county commissioners, but opinions are mixed as to whether the executive power should be delegated to an elected or appointed position.