A majority of the newly elected Clark County Charter Review commissioners have expressed an interest in making county council positions nonpartisan.
In last week’s election, 15 of 52 candidates were elected to the commission that will review the county government’s nearly 6-year-old guiding document. Three commissioners were elected at large, and each of the four county council districts will have three representatives.
The commission can recommend changes to the 22-page document and forward them to the county auditor. Voters would then decide on those ideas in a future general election.
The Columbian sent each elected member of the commission a list of questions about their overall view of the current charter and what they would like to change. They were asked specifically about nonpartisan councilor seats and any potential changes to the county manager position — both topics broached by local political observers in recent years.
Several of the newly elected commissioners pointed out that their duty is to review the charter and said they would be open to discussion on any issue, including nonpartisan councilors. But at first glance, a majority of them are keen on the idea.
“The issues of land management and government function are burdened by the hyper-partisanship we are seeing. When candidates are pressured by the electoral system to identify with a party, issues that are important to the council position are overshadowed by national partisan politics,” said Dorothy Gasque, who was elected to represent Clark County Council District 2. “It is important to me to have representation on the council that is concerned with balancing growth and conservation.”
But the first challenge for the elected commissioners may be to assuage concerns of partisanship among themselves.
Republicans will maintain a 4-1 majority on the county council after last week’s elections, while the charter review commission will include numerous members with ties to the Democratic Party. Responses to the question on partisan county council seats revealed that those with Democratic backgrounds largely supported the idea of a nonpartisan council, while Republicans opposed it.
“I’m trying to go in with a neutral agenda here, because I see people saying there’s a bunch of Democrats here,” said Jeff Angelo, who was elected to represent District 3 and said he typically votes for Democrats. “It’s tough for me to hear, ‘Great, now we’ve got all our Democrats in there. Now we can make some changes.’ This is nonpartisan.”
The voter-approved county charter formed an executive branch of county government. The county manager is hired by the council, and is charged with overseeing department heads and daily operations, leaving the council to function as the legislative branch.
So far, the position has been a carousel of permanent and temporary managers.
The new charter review commissioners haven’t expressed much of an appetite to overhaul the manager’s position — including making it elected — but several called for changes, including more transparency, in the hiring process.
“The current recipe for the county manager position is generally OK. However, our government has failed in making it successful,” said Chris Goodwin, elected to District 1. “I would like us to look more deeply into the transparency of thought and intent behind recruitment and selection criteria and practices on the part of the councilors who currently get to pick the county manager.”
Many other ideas will make their way into commission discussions. Some changes have been raised by more than one member include restructuring the county Board of Health, which currently consists of the county council; implementing a new ethics review process; and creating more robust diversity and equity guidelines — possibly including an office specifically dedicated to the subject.
The charter was a contentious issue in the 2014 election cycle before it passed with 53.35 percent of the vote. Six years later, a majority of those tasked with reviewing the document agree that it was a good start.
“I believe the charter has resulted in a dramatic improvement in county governance over the previous commission system,” said Eric Holt, elected at large. “Now, we as the Charter Review Commission get to use hindsight and input from those directly involved with the charter in our deliberations going forward. I am excited to begin this new collaboration with my fellow commissioners and with public input, I believe we will also successfully produce welcome improvements to our county home rule charter.”