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News / Clark County News

Clark County charter foe, backer make their case

They debate if it would curb 'cronyism' or 'build firewall' between leaders, residents

By Tyler Graf
Published: October 7, 2014, 5:00pm
2 Photos
Lou Brancaccio/The Columbian
Judith Anderson, left, and Nan Henriksen, right, discuss the proposed home rule charter with The Columbian's editorial board.
Lou Brancaccio/The Columbian Judith Anderson, left, and Nan Henriksen, right, discuss the proposed home rule charter with The Columbian's editorial board. Photo Gallery

When it comes to making changes to how Clark County government operates, Nan Henriksen, a proponent of a proposed home rule charter, told The Columbian’s editorial board Tuesday that it was a matter of good government, one that would decrease “cronyism and favoritism.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Judith Anderson, an opponent of the charter, called it too drastic a change that would “build a firewall” between residents and elected officials.

“Our (current) county government is really flexible because it can respond to citizen issues,” Anderson said.

Henriksen disputed that point, saying the charter wouldn’t make county government any less flexible but rather delineate roles and boost representation.

10 Photos
This combo of four photos from left to right shows a total lunar eclipse seen from Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. The moon appears orange or red, the result of sunlight scattering off Earth's atmosphere. This is known as the blood moon.
Lunar eclipse Photo Gallery

The proposed charter calls for changing the role and function of the three-member elected county board, limiting its involvement in day-to-day operations and renaming its members councilors. The day-to-day operations would be handed to an unelected county manager.

The charter also expands the board from three members to five, and calls for all but one of the councilors to be elected by district in the general election. The fifth councilor, who would act as the chairman of the board, would be elected countywide.

The changes address systemic problems that have become a focal point in county government, said Henriksen, who previously served as the chairwoman of the 15-member board of freeholders. She said the freeholders worked hard to ensure they had a fair document to take to voters in November.

“There was not one member on the (freeholder) board who got everything they wanted,” she said.

While Henriksen referred to systemic problems in government, she stopped short of calling the charter a referendum on Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore. “It doesn’t matter that two conservatives are on the board,” she said.

However, calls for forming a freeholder board and enumerating changes to county government intensified after Mielke and Madore hired state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as the county’s environmental services director in 2013. That decision led to allegations that Mielke and Madore, both Republicans, were showing cronyism and favoritism and politicizing the county’s hiring process.

Under the charter, the county manager would be in charge of hiring and firing department heads.

Henriksen called it a sensible approach to separating powers and having councilors focus solely on policy issues. And while Anderson recognized there were many people in the community who disapprove of Mielke and Madore, she said the charter was an extreme approach to restricting their authority.

“We have to look at this a little more long term,” she said.

The freeholders were elected in November 2013 and spent seven months discussing a spate of proposed changes before eventually landing on several they included in the charter. Three freeholders — Peter Silliman, state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, and businessman Tracy Wilson — voted against the charter. They’re now helping to lead efforts to oppose it.

Anderson, who’s working on the anti-charter campaign, said she’d been leery of the charter from the beginning. Looking at the finished document, she said she couldn’t support a single piece of it.

“I can’t see that there’s anything in the charter that’s an improvement over what we have,” she said. Of particular concern, Anderson said, was that the charter places more power in the hands of an unelected official.

Henriksen countered that the councilors would have the ultimate authority, as they’d have the power to fire the manager. The charter simply better outlines what the manger’s duties would be, and how powers would be separated, she said.

The charter also proposes cutting the commissioners’ pay to $53,000 a year, except for the chairman, who would receive more. Another change would be the addition of an initiative and referendum process.

That piece of the charter is particularly confusing, Anderson said, because how the county could actually use the process would be restricted by state law.

For many of Anderson’s more forceful arguments, Henriksen responded that such claims were part of a “misinformation” campaign against the charter.

Anderson shot back: “I get tired of them saying … you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

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Amid the occasionally lively debate, there was one area of agreement. Henriksen and Anderson said people should read the charter for themselves.

In the coming weeks, there will also be several informational meetings about the charter, attended by spokespeople from both sides of the debate. Two panel discussions between former freeholders will take place at libraries.

The first will be held 6:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Battle Ground Community Library, 1207 S.E. Seventh Way, Battle Ground; the second will be held 6:30 p.m. at Cascade Park Community Library, 600 N.E. 136th Ave., Vancouver.