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March 1, 2021

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Spotlight on Clark County charter vote

Proposed new form of government is the hot issue in this year's general election

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Residents of the Lincoln Neighborhood Association turn out Monday at the Latte Da Coffeehouse and Wine Bar in Vancouver to hear a presentation about the proposed home rule charter.
Residents of the Lincoln Neighborhood Association turn out Monday at the Latte Da Coffeehouse and Wine Bar in Vancouver to hear a presentation about the proposed home rule charter. For weeks, speakers on both sides of the issue have crisscrossed the county talking to citizens. Photo Gallery

What is a home rule charter?

To understand what a home rule charter does, you must first understand the current form of government.

The state constitution, ratified in 1889, spells out how county governments operate, unless voters opt for a home rule charter. The constitution calls for an elected three-member board of commissioners, along with other elected offices such as auditor, treasurer, assessor, clerk, sheriff and prosecuting attorney.

In 1948, the constitution was amended to allow counties to adopt home rule charters. These charters allow local jurisdictions, through an elected board of freeholders, to revamp the structure of county government. There are six charter counties in Washington, with King County being the first to adopt a charter in 1969. Some of the charter counties have enacted large-scale overhauls — King County’s board, for example, has nine members — while changes to other counties are small.

What the charter would do

• Add two council members. One of the commissioners would be the council chairman.

• Hire a county manager, who would oversee department heads. The manager would lead many of the day-to-day operations of the county as part of the charter’s call for separating legislative and executive powers.

• Reduce the council members’ pay nearly in half. The four council members would receive an annual salary of $53,000 a year; the council chair would receive $64,000.

• With the exception of the council chair, the council members would be elected by district in the general election. The council chair would be elected at large.

• Create a limited initiative and referendum process.


The state’s charter counties

Of Washington’s 39 counties, six have what is known as a home rule charter, meaning the form of government differs from what’s outlined in the state constitution.

While the home rule jurisdictions comprise only 15 percent of the state’s counties, more than half of all Washington residents live in one. The home rule counties are King, Snohomish, Pierce, Clallam, Whatcom and San Juan.

Here’s how these counties’ governmental functions differ:

King County

County seat: Seattle

Established in 1969, King County’s charter has an elected nine-member board of councilors and an elected executive. Some other functions of government are different, too. Instead of having an elected auditor, clerk or treasurer, those positions are appointed. Another difference is the director of elections is an elected position.

San Juan County

County seat: Friday Harbor

The newest of the home rule counties, and also the smallest, San Juan County made the switch in 2005. Like non-home-rule counties, it has a county commission and an appointed county administrator. It does have an expanded board, though. Instead of the constitutionally mandated three-member board, it has six county commissioners, who are nonpartisan.

Whatcom County

County seat: Bellingham

The closest to Clark County in terms of population, Whatcom County made the transition to a home rule charter in 1978. The county has a seven-member elected council and an elected executive. Other differences include the addition of an appointed deputy administrator.

Pierce County

County seat: Tacoma

Established in 1981, Pierce County’s charter has a seven-member board of councilors and an elected executive.

Clallam County

County seat: Port Angeles

One of two charter counties with fewer than 100,000 people, Clallam County implemented a charter in 1979. It’s also the charter county with the fewest significant changes. It continues to operate with a three-member commission form of government, with an appointed administrator.

Snohomish County

County seat: Everett

Established in 1980, Snohomish County’s charter has a five-member elected council and an elected executive.

— Tyler Graf

The political battle of the season is not taking place between opposing candidates. Rather, it’s focused on how county government operates.

What is a home rule charter?

To understand what a home rule charter does, you must first understand the current form of government.

The state constitution, ratified in 1889, spells out how county governments operate, unless voters opt for a home rule charter. The constitution calls for an elected three-member board of commissioners, along with other elected offices such as auditor, treasurer, assessor, clerk, sheriff and prosecuting attorney.

In 1948, the constitution was amended to allow counties to adopt home rule charters. These charters allow local jurisdictions, through an elected board of freeholders, to revamp the structure of county government. There are six charter counties in Washington, with King County being the first to adopt a charter in 1969. Some of the charter counties have enacted large-scale overhauls -- King County's board, for example, has nine members -- while changes to other counties are small.

It’s the type of subject matter generally discussed in college classes, not at the water cooler. But in Clark County, the home rule charter has become the political issue of the 2014 general election.

The dividing line between supporters and opponents of the proposed Clark County charter has been stark. On one side, there’s the old guard, a bipartisan bloc consisting of names such as Republican Sheriff Garry Lucas, Democratic former county Commissioner Betty Sue Morris and Republican county Auditor Greg Kimsey. They say the charter would improve voter representation, increase professionalism and usher the county into a new era. Other supporters say it would add more checks and balances and professional oversight to a county that in the past decade has exploded in population.

On the other side, there are the opponents, culled from the more conservative ranks of the local Republican Party, who call the charter too much and too reactionary — a referendum on two sitting commissioners, Republicans Tom Mielke and David Madore, who are simply exerting the leadership they were elected to provide.

The opponents criticize how a charter would place more power in the hands of an unelected county manager, who would act as the point person between the commissioners and department heads, much like a city manager. They’ve referred to such a position as a “king” or “dictator.”

The critics also say what’s proposed would take power away from the commissioners, diminishing their role in day-to-day operations and limiting their ability to talk to county staff.

Even in the minds of those on opposing ends of debate, the charter is a disruptive political force, a litmus-test issue that has infiltrated other county races. Nonpartisan sheriff candidate Shane Gardner, for one, has thrown his backing behind the charter and said he hopes “charter supporters also support me.”

Gardner’s opponent, Republican Chuck Atkins, has said he opposes the charter.

The line has been drawn in the county commissioner race, as well, with Republican candidate Jeanne Stewart opposing the charter and Democrat Craig Pridemore supporting it.

The charter’s intersection with other elections isn’t lost on those who are campaigning for and against the charter.

“This is the biggest issue on the ballot this year,” said Nan Henriksen, the former Camas mayor who served as chairwoman of the 15-member board of freeholders. The freeholders, elected by the public last November, spent seven months writing a proposed charter.

Henriksen and other supporters have worked to promote the governmental changes written into it, crisscrossing the county in the hopes of explaining what the reforms would do. It’s not an easy sell. She worries that most voters don’t know what a home rule charter is.

That position isn’t lost on charter opponents, either. Mielke, who recorded a video message in which he criticizes the charter, has said he doesn’t believe voters will support the charter, in part because they don’t know what it would actually do.

Voter apathy, and a lack of interest in what the charter is, ranks as another concern for charter supporters.

Charter proponents liken it to fighting a battle on two fronts. They have to both light a fire under prospective voters and counter the message of a well-funded opposition campaign. That’s becoming more difficult to do, as money continues to flow into the anti-charter political action committee, known as Don’t Lose Your Voice.

“They have the ability to create an incredible number of signs, which we can’t match,” Henriksen said.

Last week, Madore contributed $37,000 to anti-charter efforts. The campaign money has been spent on everything from television commercials to so-called robocalls.

What the charter would do

• Add two council members. One of the commissioners would be the council chairman.

• Hire a county manager, who would oversee department heads. The manager would lead many of the day-to-day operations of the county as part of the charter's call for separating legislative and executive powers.

• Reduce the council members' pay nearly in half. The four council members would receive an annual salary of $53,000 a year; the council chair would receive $64,000.

• With the exception of the council chair, the council members would be elected by district in the general election. The council chair would be elected at large.

• Create a limited initiative and referendum process.

A rare battle

Political battles over home rule charters are nothing new in Washington, but they are rare and rarely as vitriolic as the one that’s been simmering in Clark County for the past year.

There are typically two well-positioned sides, political observers say, pitting the elements of change against the status quo. Turning the charter debate into a partisan issue is as much about feeding a political base, convincing them to vote, as it is about foiling the charter.

“In almost all cases, you’ll have those who support the status quo and those who support change,” said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver. “This is a way to galvanize the party. It goes beyond the charter.”

Kimsey, the county’s Republican auditor and a charter supporter, agrees. He calls the proposed charter a proxy for other ongoing debates, including the canceled Columbia River Crossing project.

It also can be seen as a proxy for pent-up frustration with Mielke and Madore, two commissioners whom critics view as wielding too much power. They continue to receive criticism for their controversial hiring of Republican state Sen. Don Benton as the county’s environmental services director, decried as cronyism.

Speaking before the Lincoln Neighborhood Association last week, Kimsey acknowledged that the local Republican Party had voted to oppose the charter but said many Republicans — including himself, Lucas and former state Sen. Joe Zarelli — were adamant supporters of it.

He called the freeholders who wrote the charter “about as diverse a group of people as you could find in this county.”

He added: “I believe this is a very modest proposal.”

Kimsey is one of the charter’s chief supporters, who began banging the drum for reforms as a principle member of ClarkForward. Formed in 2013 by Kimsey and former Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, the group was created to promote the concept of a home rule charter. Three former attempts to pursue a charter fizzled in 1982, 1987 and 2002.

Kimsey doesn’t mince words when it comes to what he considers misinformation about the charter. In particular, he has taken aim at the idea that the charter would prevent the council members from voicing opinions or talking to constituents.

“To think a county charter could limit the free speech rights of council members … is ludicrous,” Kimsey said.

While the charter says that council members couldn’t direct employees, they could still talk to them and ask questions, Kimsey said.

Oversight at issue

Because the county is home to more than 400,000 people, Kimsey said it’s time to shift toward more professional oversight and more representation on the board. The charter calls for expanding the board of commissioners from three members to five, renaming them council members in the process.

Kimsey called the council-manager form of county government a common one nationwide for jurisdictions with more than 100,000 residents.

Stephan, the WSU Vancouver political science professor, said that’s true because of the movement toward “professionalization” in county government.

But charter opponents see it differently.

They balk at nearly every element of the charter. Particularly, they take issue with adding a county manager and turning the commissioners into council members, who’d be limited in their ability to direct county staff.

The state's charter counties

Of Washington's 39 counties, six have what is known as a home rule charter, meaning the form of government differs from what's outlined in the state constitution.

While the home rule jurisdictions comprise only 15 percent of the state's counties, more than half of all Washington residents live in one. The home rule counties are King, Snohomish, Pierce, Clallam, Whatcom and San Juan.

Here's how these counties' governmental functions differ:

King County

County seat: Seattle

Established in 1969, King County's charter has an elected nine-member board of councilors and an elected executive. Some other functions of government are different, too. Instead of having an elected auditor, clerk or treasurer, those positions are appointed. Another difference is the director of elections is an elected position.

San Juan County

County seat: Friday Harbor

The newest of the home rule counties, and also the smallest, San Juan County made the switch in 2005. Like non-home-rule counties, it has a county commission and an appointed county administrator. It does have an expanded board, though. Instead of the constitutionally mandated three-member board, it has six county commissioners, who are nonpartisan.

Whatcom County

County seat: Bellingham

The closest to Clark County in terms of population, Whatcom County made the transition to a home rule charter in 1978. The county has a seven-member elected council and an elected executive. Other differences include the addition of an appointed deputy administrator.

Pierce County

County seat: Tacoma

Established in 1981, Pierce County's charter has a seven-member board of councilors and an elected executive.

Clallam County

County seat: Port Angeles

One of two charter counties with fewer than 100,000 people, Clallam County implemented a charter in 1979. It's also the charter county with the fewest significant changes. It continues to operate with a three-member commission form of government, with an appointed administrator.

Snohomish County

County seat: Everett

Established in 1980, Snohomish County's charter has a five-member elected council and an elected executive.

-- Tyler Graf

Charter opponents liken the diminished role of the council members to the elected board as being only part-time members.

Madore has criticized the charter for making the elected officials part-time officials.

“We’re not part-time commissioners,” Madore said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s like saying a preacher only works on Sunday.”

In response to Madore, and other opponents, Kimsey said there’s nothing in state law dictating how much time an elected official spends at work, so there’s no such thing as a part-time elected official.

Still, charter opponents say the charter would strip power away from elected officials and hand more of it to an unelected official. Under the proposed charter, the new county manager would be hired and fired by the council members. The county manager would be an at-will position.

Anti-charter factions have labeled a future county manager as a “king” and a “downtown dictator.” That language was used in a voter identification phone call some county residents reported receiving last week. A commercial on the Don’t Lose Your Voice Web page says the charter would transfer “unprecedented power to an unelected county manager not accountable to you.”

Judith Anderson, an anti-charter spokeswoman, said the existing system isn’t broken and doesn’t need to be fixed. She called the charter a blatant reaction to Mielke and Madore being on the board of commissioners.

“If we don’t like our commissioners, we vote them out,” Anderson said. “It’s a very pure representative democracy.”

She called charter supporters advocates of bringing light rail to Clark County. The charter is their way of continuing the fight for the Columbia River Crossing. In reference to light rail, many of the anti-charter videos ask voters to “stop the charter train.”

Charter supporters say that’s not true, and that much of the rhetoric used by the anti-charter group is misinformation.

While Kimsey is immersed in a partisan political fight over the charter, with its strong language flying on both sides, he’s muted on what it would mean if voters don’t approve the charter on Nov. 4.

“If the charter doesn’t pass, county government will endure,” Kimsey said. “But it’s still remarkable to me the level of emotion displayed on both sides.”

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