Freeholders: Add two commissioners

Idea of an elected county executive lacks support

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: At a meeting Saturday, the majority of freeholders favored a charter that increases the number of county commissioners from three to five, with an appointed county administrator instead of an elected executive.

■ What’s next: Freeholders will meet Feb. 8 to discuss how to separate the powers of government, whether commissioners should be elected by district or countywide, and whether they should be partisan.

If you go

■ What: Freeholders will meet to discuss the county government.

■ When: 9 a.m. on Feb. 8.

■ Where: Sixth-floor hearing room, Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin Ave., Vancouver.

Reformers who pushed for a new Clark County charter envisioned an elected county executive as the key to accountability. A majority of the freeholders elected to write the document, however, are leaning away from that approach.

At this point, their intention is to keep an appointed administrator, as in the county's current structure, but with that position reporting to a larger board of commissioners. The number of commissioners should increase from three to five, freeholders agreed at their Saturday meeting.

"Just having more commissioners adds checks and balances," Freeholder Peter Silliman said.

A board of three commissioners concentrates power in the hands of just two people, and the election of just one can drastically change the county's direction, freeholders said.

"When you have three, one person can really flip the constitution of county government," Freeholder Tracy Wilson said.

Drafting a charter

Freeholders have met a half-dozen times since their election in November. The preliminary decisions they made Saturday will help them shape a draft charter they plan to present to voters in November.

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.

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

"You really have to have good elected officials, whatever the structure," Freeholder Paul Dennis said. The freeholders' task is to reform the structure of county government to minimize the damage bad officials could inflict, he said.

He favored an elected county executive. "When it comes to day-to-day operations, having a single voice could be helpful," Dennis said.

His views were shared by three others at the meeting, and two who were absent, but they are willing to go along with the majority who thought commissioners should appoint a professional administrator.

Silliman said proponents of an elected county executive should imagine how they would feel if the politician they most dislike — say, David Madore or Tim Leavitt — won the position.

Freeholder Temple Lentz said there may be ways to achieve accountability without an elected executive, although she had been leaning toward that approach.

"To me, it comes down to separation of powers," she said.

Freeholders will explore requiring a supermajority for some commissioner decisions, such as hiring of the county administrator. They discussed creating a firewall to protect county staff from commissioner meddling. The administrator, or perhaps a commission chairman, would be the one authorized to give direction.

Election by district

At their Feb. 8 meeting, freeholders will consider whether commissioners should be elected countywide or by district.

Freeholders discussed the possibility of four commissioners elected by district with a chairman elected countywide. Wilson and Lentz proposed electing three commissioners by district and two countywide.

"It's an interesting idea for every voter to get a chance to vote on a majority of the board," Lentz said.

Election by district "makes commissioners much more accessible and accountable to voters in their district," Silliman argued.

It was the one aspect of home-rule government that voters seemed to like in the 2002 charter effort. When asked about separate charter elements, 58 percent voted for commissioner elections by district, a change that didn't take effect because the charter itself failed.

This slate of freeholders doesn't plan to split out separate elements of their draft charter. They said it was confusing. Voters can expect to see one cohesive proposal on November's ballot.