Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Jan. 26, 2021

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In Our View: Choose county charter review candidates wisely

The Columbian

While the big races in November will be for Congress and seats in the state Legislature, last week’s candidate filings indicated there is also strong interest in reviewing the Clark County Charter.

Wait! Before you skip this to read the letters to the editor, take a minute to appreciate how Clark County government has improved since the charter was adopted in 2014.

In the early part of the decade, Clark County’s government was led by a network of good-old-boys, led by David Madore, who turned out to be our own Donald Trump. In his years in office, county government was wracked by constant turmoil. Ideology and cronyism routinely defeated sound public policy.

By 2013 voters had seen enough. They called for dumping the three-member board of county commissioners, writing a home-rule county charter, and electing a larger, more representative county council.

Fifteen elected freeholders met and drafted a charter, which voters approved in 2014. Adopting a system that has long worked in municipal government, they split the county commissioners’ power between a legislative branch — a county council — and an executive branch — a county manager. Instead of three commissioners elected countywide, they split the county into four districts, each of which elects one representative, and a countywide chair. Functioning as the legislative branch, the councilors set policy and hire the county manager, but are not supposed to be involved in day-to-day affairs of county government.

At this point it looks like the review commission will have a lot to leave intact when it meets next year. Predictions that large swaths of voters would be disenfranchised, or that councilors would be unable to speak out, have proven untrue. So did the prediction that the council/manager system would add to the cost of county government. In fact, a 2018 public records request by The Columbian showed administrative costs had been reduced.

Three of the five councilors have formed a moderate voting bloc that has kept government focused on projects rather than ideologies.

Certainly there are issues with the current charter that need scrutiny. For example, the council has had consistent difficulty hiring and retaining the county manager, leading to turnover and a lack of executive leadership. The review commission will want to examine this problem carefully, find its roots, and propose solutions that will lead to stability in management.

The review will be carried out by a group of 15 elected commissioners. Three will be elected from each district, and the remaining three will be chosen by a countywide vote. The 2013 freeholders group was heavy on people active in politics on both ends of the spectrum, and the four dozen who have filed for election this year show the same sort of demographic. Every seat is contested.

Several of the names are familiar, such as Liz Pike of Camas, who was a 2013 freeholder. A couple of candidates are infamous, including Tom Mielke, one of the three Madore-era county commissioners who sowed the seeds of discord and incompetence in county government. There are stalwarts like Doug Lasher, who served honorably as county treasurer for 34 years, and political animals like Brent Boger, Eric Holt and David Gellatly.

Come November, voters will want to pay attention to these charter review candidates and make sure they choose people who will continue to move county government forward, not return it to its darker recent past.