Wednesday, December 7, 2022
Dec. 7, 2022

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In Our View: Solutions … No Problems

County commissioners once again ponder reforming local government

The Columbian

When a wild goose chase clearly defines itself before it even begins, responsible travelers will decline to embark on the journey. Such is the case before Clark County commissioners as they ponder another expedition into the well-known futility of changing county government to a home rule charter.

Another apt metaphor for this crusade is a solution in search of a problem. Voters have rejected a proposed home rule charter three times in 20 years, most recently in 2002. This micro-introspection of a macro-bureaucracy became so yawn-inducing in 2011 that county commissioners declined to even pull out the stethoscope. Seven public meetings were attended by a grand total of 113 people. (The level of interest might have been even lower than such a paltry number denotes, because there’s no way of knowing how many people attended multiple meetings). In response, county commissioners correctly declined to pursue the matter further.

We’ll see if the new board of county commissioners is equally perceptive. They could consider the matter this week.

Granted, all forms of government should be subject to frequent review, as a healthy method of being held accountable. But on this repair job, we’re having a hard time finding what’s broken.

Reforming county government could include any of a dozen or more changes, none of which have been accompanied by any measurable public demand. This lack of motivation might explain why only six of 39 counties in Washington have adopted home rule charters. As Erik Hidle explained in a Saturday Columbian story, potential changes could include giving residents referendum powers on county issues, changing some elected offices to appointed jobs, increasing the number of commissioners and making office nonpartisan.

Faint flickers of approval can be expressed on some of these notions. Expanding from three to five county commissioners could be supported by pointing out that the most important decisions in our community would no longer be made by just two people. Then again, with current annual salaries exceeding six digits per commissioner, plus their myriad employment benefits, our county can’t really afford such a change.

We also like the idea of making some county offices nonpartisan. For example, how well a leader can enforce the law or supervise elections should never depend on whether he or she is a Republican or Democrat. But, again, this hasn’t seemed to be much of a problem.

Back in 2011, activists also proposed electing commissioners by districts. Currently, they are voted on by districts in the primary, but subject to countywide election in the fall. In this way, keeping a county commissioner accountable to the whole county is a good idea. Electing them by district would create fiefdoms, with each commissioner ignoring the needs of two-thirds the county and committed to serve only one-third of local voters.

Two years ago, the county spent about $5,000 on staff time at public meetings for this issue. Putting the matter before the voters could cost $100,000 more. The process itself is appropriately complex. Freeholders would need to be elected, then they would conduct an extensive series of meetings and make recommendations to county commissioners, who might or might not put it all before the voters.

Clark County commissioners have enough to do already. When a figurative phone booth might hold all the activists, the cause probably has not risen to the level of a public mandate.