Saturday, November 26, 2022
Nov. 26, 2022

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Jayne: Looking to the past to inform future of charter debate

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

The arguments against a proposed Clark County charter sound familiar and well-rehearsed.

• Clark County currently enjoys a clean, efficient government.

• The freeholders left no way for citizens to revoke home rule if they don’t like it.

• Increasing from three to five county commissioners is unwise. … Will adding two more people improve the county commissioners’ decisions or rulings and improve services to the citizens?

• A district system for Clark County would almost certainly result in competition and conflict between districts.

• Since county commissioners have both legislative and executive duties, creating such parochialism would be destructive. … Districts also actually reduce your representation.

Surely you have heard these arguments — assuming you have been paying attention. But the interesting part is that each of the quotes above comes from the 2002 Voters’ Pamphlet, reflecting the discussion the last time voters considered home rule for Clark County.

Back then, the presentation to the public was much different. Back then, voters were faced with a bare-bones proposal that would do little more than give them the ability to change how county government was set up. They also were asked about three additional propositions, each reflecting a singular change: Should the number of commissioners be increased from three to five? Should commissioners be elected by district rather than countywide? And should voters have the power of initiative and referendum in order to propose laws in the county?

When the overall proposal was defeated — by 187 votes, or 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent — the other questions became moot. Still, it might be instructive to revisit the answers to those questions.

In 2002, voters tarred-and-feathered the notion of five commissioners. Of course, back then, adding commissioners would have increased the budget, as each would have retained a full-time salary; this time around, the proposal would slash salaries and have little overall impact on the budget. And, of course, back then voters were not viewing the issue through the prism of a David Madore/Tom Mielke commission.

In 2002, voters slightly rejected the power of initiative and referendum, and they approved the election of commissioners by district with 58.3 percent of the vote. This final issue might be moot, as a federal judge has ruled that a Yakima system similar to the one we have now — primaries voted on by district, but as at-large in the general election — is unconstitutional.

A different landscape

Now, there’s no doubt Clark County has changed since 2002. There’s no doubt that it has changed since 1997 and since 1982, when voters twice declined to begin the charter process. Those outcomes might or might not mean anything this time around, as previous results do not guarantee future earnings.

But the pertinent item is that there’s also no doubt Clark County has changed since 1889, when the state constitution established our current system of county government. And that is one area in which the naysayers are off-base. Maybe you don’t like one or two particular provisions in the proposal; maybe you think there should be 23 county commissioners and are holding out until that idea lands on the ballot. But it is absurd to suggest that a system designed when the county had 11,000 residents remains perfect today.

The new proposal might not be the best solution, but I suspect it would be an improvement. Sure, I have mixed feelings; and no, I have not reached an unshakable opinion. But when it comes to the arguments against the charter, some of them ring hollow. For one example, Clark County does not have a clean, efficient government. For another, there are several ways in which to amend the charter. And for another, electing commissioners to at-large positions likely is unconstitutional.

Yet I can’t blame the detractors for pulling out those arguments again. After all, they worked the last time around.

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