BATTLE GROUND — Any thoughts that a debate about proposed changes to Clark County government would sway public opinion were quashed Tuesday night at the Battle Ground Community Center, where partisans on both sides of the issue convened to bicker.
The debate, jointly sponsored by Clark County Citizens United and the Clark County Farm Forestry Association, was ostensibly for the fence-sitters. But the majority of the attendees, roughly two dozen, came with firmly entrenched beliefs.
The debate was between factions in favor of and opposed to a proposed home rule charter, represented by former county Commissioner Betty Sue Morris and Sheriff Garry Lucas, and those against, represented by Tracy Wilson and state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas.
Pike, Wilson and Lucas, all Republicans, were also all freeholders, a 15-member board elected in November and tasked with drafting a new county charter. The new charter, completed in May, calls for sweeping changes to how county government would run, including the hiring of a county manager to oversee day-to-day operations and the addition of two new commissioners who, under the charter, would be called councilors. One of the new councilors would serve at-large.
Although Wilson and Pike were freeholders, they voted against approving the charter. Clark County voters will have an opportunity to approve or reject it in November.
Wilson explained his opposition to the charter, saying freeholders didn’t have enough time to discuss the changes. He also criticized the involvement of county staff in helping phrase some of the charter’s language.
Another concern, he said, was that the charter would prevent county councilors from overseeing department heads. He said too little was known about how the charter would play out if enacted.
“I don’t want this to be Clark County’s Obamacare,” he said.
Pike said the charter would add more bureaucracy to county government and build a “firewall a mile high” between constituents and government.
With the new charter in place, Clark County would become the “most bureaucratic county on the West Coast,” Pike said.
“I’ve done research with a local attorney, so you don’t have to take my word for it — but I am trustworthy,” she said.
Pike added: “This puts too much power in the hands of an unelected bureaucrat.”
Morris, a Democrat and staunch charter supporter who’s leading a campaign to have it approved by voters, disputed the anti-charter claims, singling out Pike’s as “hogwash.”
She said the charter wouldn’t limit a councilmember’s ability to speak out on issues.
Morris added that the charter would place more power in the hands of north county voters.
“The political center of gravity shifts to the north, the small cities, the people in suburban areas and rural landowners,” she said.
Morris also responded to claims that a county manager would have autonomous authority, saying that whoever is in the position would be there to provide professional oversight of governmental operations.
“If the council is run over by the county manager, then you elected some pretty wussy people,” Morris told the audience.
At times, the debate turned chippy.
Commissioner Tom Mielke, a Republican whose District 1 covers the northern part of the county, questioned whether the changes would hand more power to the county’s urban core.
Morris responded, saying that had Mielke “paid attention to the numbers,” he’d see that the northern part of the county would have more representation than it does now.
The debate was occasionally punctuated by applause, audible grumbles and boos. When the evening’s last question from Republican stalwart Chuck Miller turned into a monologue against the charter, Lucas tried to intervene, leading to a verbal scuffle.
Mielke later called the debate “nonproductive.”
The tenor of the debate was set early.
Anna Miller, Chuck Miller’s wife and Republican county Commissioner David Madore’s personal county assistant, was handing out printed material opposed to the charter before the debate. One of the pages characterized the pro-charter campaign as being led by “urban liberals … pushing a charter to silence your vote.”
The pro-charter campaign also handed out material, including a flier featuring Republican Lucas and Democrat Morris standing side by side.
Ralph Akin, a Republican, came to the meeting undecided about how to cast his vote. The debate didn’t change his position.
“I’m still tossing it up and down,” he said, adding that he needed to do more independent research. “Hopefully, the solution I reach will be the right one.”