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News / Clark County News

Clark County may have inadvertently violated charter with fee vote

Council will revisit issue today after undoing action

By Kaitlin Gillespie
Published: July 21, 2015, 5:00pm

The Clark County council may have inadvertently violated the home-rule charter Tuesday when two of the three members voted to reaffirm a portion of the county’s stormwater fee ordinance — action the council later undid and rescheduled for another day.

Councilors Tom Mielke and David Madore, both Republicans, voted to uphold Clark County’s stormwater fee increases, which the board approved about a year ago. Councilor Jeanne Stewart, a Republican, left the meeting prior to the public hearing and vote on the ordinance. Late Tuesday night, Stewart said she had family in town she had to meet.

After voting to maintain the fees, Madore, chair of the board, adjourned the meeting. However, the council, absent Stewart, reconvened several minutes later at Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chris Horne’s urging to announce that the vote was in potential violation of the charter. The council will instead attempt to address the ordinance today during its weekly board time meeting.

At first glance, it seems unusual that a quorum of the board would be unable to take such action. However, the home-rule charter specifies that three councilors — not a quorum, not a majority — must vote to approve ordinances, meaning the current council of three members must unanimously approve ordinances for them to take effect, Horne told the board.

Environmental Services Director Don Benton said after the meeting that the charter currently puts too much power in the hands of the minority. Stormwater and clean water programs fall under the Department of Environmental Services.

“It creates dysfunction on steroids,” Benton said. “It literally stops the function of government.”

Transition period

Clark County voters approved the home-rule charter in November and it took effect at the beginning of this year. However, a section dedicated to the transition period between a three-person commission to a five-person council does not address ordinances. There is also no way for the current council to amend the charter. Only once all five councilors are seated can any changes to the charter be considered, according to the charter.

Former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen, the chair of the board of freeholders who drafted the charter, agreed with Horne’s interpretation but said the freeholders never intended to prevent the current council from passing an ordinance.

“We have tied their hands in that regard,” Henriksen said.

The council has only considered and unanimously approved three other ordinances this year, so the problem was never apparent prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

Benton, however, said it’s unfortunate that the county is discovering this roadblock right now. It effectively takes just one dissenting councilmember to kill an ordinance.

“Clearly it’s a mistake,” he said. “The freeholders would never put the minority in charge of the county council, which is what the effect of this is.”

The county must approve to uphold the fee increases by Aug. 7, or else they will sunset, according to the ordinance. The county approved the fee increases last year, partly in order to help fill a $1.6 million funding gap in its clean water program.

Previously, property owners were charged a $33 annual fee. Those rates went up $2 for rural property owners and $12 for those who live inside the urban growth boundary. In addition, ratepayers will pay an additional $5 surcharge from 2015 to 2019 — that fee, however, will not sunset, Acting County Manager Mark McCauley said.

If the other fees do sunset, Benton said the department may have to consider cutting costs to make up for the deficit.