The question of whether Clark County Council positions should remain partisan has drawn mixed answers from candidates for the County Charter Review Commission.
Voters in the Nov. 3 general election will choose, among a field of 52 candidates, 15 members for the commission, which will complete the first review of the nearly 6-year-old charter. Three at-large candidates will be elected, along with three candidates from each of the four county council districts.
Any amendments to the charter recommended by the commission would be forwarded to the County Auditor’s Office for placement on a future general election ballot. Though a complete review of the 22-page charter will officially begin once the commission is seated, partisanship on the council has been one of the main discussion points during the campaign.
Liz Pike, a former Republican state legislator, was a freeholder on the 2013 committee that drafted the charter before its approval by voters in November 2014. Tom Mielke, a former Republican county councilor, served on the council during the charter vote. Peter Silliman, a former county policy analyst and one-time Republican legislative candidate, also served as a 2013 freeholder.
Each of them opposed the charter in 2014. As they seek election to the review commission, they agreed that the council positions should remain partisan.
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“Should be partisan to give voters an idea of the mindset of their elected leaders,” Mielke said. “There is a wide spread of differences between parties.”
Washougal City Councilor Brent Boger, a former Clark County GOP chair who disassociated from the local party in 2012 after saying it was leaning more toward extreme right views, also agreed that the positions should remain partisan.
“They are the policymaking body for the county and there are different perspectives from the left and right on how a county government should be run,” Boger said. “The voters would be assisted by knowing whether the councilor is more or less inclined to raise taxes or adopt less or more restrictive land use rules. There may be different perspectives on resource allocation, as well.”
Former Clark County Treasurer Doug Lasher, a Democrat, said he favors the idea of nonpartisan council positions.
“The job of the council and county government is governance and implementation of state law; there is no place for the desires of a political party,” Lasher said. “Incorporating nonpartisan council positions will be another step in the right direction of good governance. It allows voters to research the candidate’s positions and qualifications, rather than relying on a party label to make a decision.”
Local Democratic Party mainstays Steve Perkel and Dorothy Gasque also supported the idea of nonpartisan positions in their candidate statements included in the voters’ pamphlet.
Chuck Green, a Democrat and former Clark County Council District 2 candidate, said he’s considered arguments on both sides of the question but remains supportive of partisan seats. He supported the original charter and held a series of informational “charter talks” in 2014 leading up to the vote.
“I’m not quite in the nonpartisan camp yet for county council, but I’d still like to have an educated and civil conversation about it,” Green said.
County manager position
Candidates were also asked about their views on the county manager position as it currently stands — appointed by the council and nonpartisan. Some of them — Pike and Lasher — supported the current iteration of the position.
Boger said that the charter does not allow enough supervision of the county manager by councilors, who can only discuss with staff “information and advice pertinent to the legislative deliberations and actions of the council.”
Silliman said he believes the county manager is too involved in policymaking, while noting the councilors may also be too close to day-to-day operations.
“There existed a lot of anti-commissioner bias at the time the charter was formed. The provisions of the charter intentionally reduced their influence,” Silliman said. “That bias is partly why I don’t see the manager position working out well so far.”
Among the other ideas presented by the candidates have been an increase in councilors’ abilities to communicate with staff, full-time pay for councilors, staff for councilors, an independent ethics review commission, electing councilors through a countywide vote instead of by district, council approval of deputy county managers and council term limits.
The list of candidates includes several familiar faces in Clark County: Battle Ground City Councilor Mike Dalesandro, former local GOP Chair David Gellatly, NAACP Vancouver President Bridgette Fahnbulleh, Port of Vancouver Commission Eric LaBrant and other former and current candidates and elected officials.
Considering the complexities of the charter and volume of candidates, those seeking election to the commission will be working to distinguish themselves in the closing weeks before Election Day.
“It’s been six years since the passage of the charter was a big deal,” Green said. “While I’ve been out talking with people, there are many new Clark County residents who were not here in 2014. So there’s the challenge of educating people on why the charter is still important to them.”