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Thursday, June 1, 2023
June 1, 2023

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Voters to weigh in on Clark County charter amendments

By , Columbian staff writer

Ballots for the Nov. 2 general election will start showing up in mailboxes in a little more than a week. On that ballot, voters will find nine proposed amendments to the county’s home rule charter. Seven of those nine amendments come from the charter review committee, and two from the Clark County Council.

In 2014, voters approved changing the county form of government to a home rule charter with 53.4 percent of the vote. In the seven years since the charter was drafted by 15 elected freeholders, there have been a lot of changes in the county and more people are asking questions about the charter, said review committee co-chair Chuck Green.

“We have a lot of new people; 50,000 have moved into this county since the charter was passed,” Green said.

Maureen Winningham, who serves on the Charter Review Commission, said the existing charter is “a fine document for governance” but needs some fine-tuning.

The freeholders, Winningham said, “put together a solid document. We’re just trying to tweak it, to contemporize it, and to make sure it meets the needs of our growing population.”

Not everyone agrees that changes need to be made. A group going by the name of “Just Vote No” is campaigning against the seven amendments proposed by the review committee. On its website, the group says, “Simply put, they are bad recommendations and bad changes which will damage Clark County.”

Representatives for Just Vote No declined to comment for this story.

Proposition 1

This amendment changes the elected positions of assessor, auditor, clerk, prosecuting attorney, sheriff and treasurer to nonpartisan when filing to run for office and on ballot listings. Currently, party affiliation is listed with the candidate’s name on the ballot and in the voters’ guide.

According to the review committee, “These are administrative offices responsible for managing state and federal laws for the county, state and all the junior taxing districts… Partisanship should not have anything to do with the administration of local government.”

Just Vote No says most voters want to know which party a candidate supports and that if offices were nonpartisan, voters would have to do more research on individual candidates.

Proposition 2

Similar to the previous amendment, Proposition 2 would make the five county council seats nonpartisan.

Charter committee member Doug Lasher said having partisan members makes it harder to find common solutions and can mean councilors are more focused on party politics than what’s best for all county residents.

“Too much we’ve been tied into politics, he said/she said types of things. I think the public wants to have people work on solutions,” said Lasher, who served as Clark County’s treasurer for 34 years. “That’s what we’re trying to focus on.”

Opponents’ arguments against the measure are the same as for Proposition 1. Additionally, the group says there were “no polls or surveys taken by the Charter Review Board to see if residents preferred each county office being nonpartisan.”

In talking with constituents, Winningham said she found “the people who are really actively involved politically want partisan positions.” But others that she talked to, those not as engaged in politics on a daily or weekly basis, liked the idea of nonpartisan positions. “They want to get to know the person, not their politics,” she said.

Proposition 3

Currently, the county council’s five-member board has four members representing geographic districts with a fifth at-large member elected by voters as the council chair.

This would change to five elected members representing geographic districts. The fifth district would encompass north and rural Clark County. The five council members would then select one of the members to serve as chair and one to serve as vice chair.

“We’re the only county in Washington state that elects their chair by a vote of the people,” Green said.

He also noted the influx of new residents has “thrown the geographic districts out of balance.”

The target population for each of the five districts is 102,936. Under the proposed changes, districts 3 and 4 — which include Vancouver, Camas and Washougal — would have their boundaries reduced to meet the target and districts 1, 2 and 5 would be increased.

“No matter what happens, the district boundaries will have to change next year to balance the populations,” Green added.

If the amendment passes, the four current council members would continue to represent their districts until the end of their terms. Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien would represent the new fifth district until the end of her term. A special election would not be required.

The amendment also sets the salaries for councilors at $53,000 per year with adjustments based on changes for state legislators set by the Washington State Salary Commission. The four council members now representing geographic districts have an annual salary of $66,300 while the council chair receives $79,560 per year.

The new salary schedules would go into effect after the current council members have completed their terms, although all would receive the same salary.

Councilors will be elected during the November general election and will not automatically be included in the primary election.

Proposition 4

The charter currently calls for review every 10 years. Proposition 4 would change that term to every five years. Additionally, charter review commissioners would be elected for a two-year term rather than the one-year term they now serve.

Extending the committee members’ terms would let them better focus on the work to be done and see it through, Winningham said.

In the Voters’ Pamphlet, the committee said, “Delaying important adjustments can create long-standing problems that shouldn’t wait a decade to be fixed. It is vital that our community is active and diligent in improving our governance.”

Proposition 4 was the only proposed amendment not to receive unanimous approval from the charter review committee. Committee member John Latta submitted a statement against Proposition 4 for the Voters’ Guide.

“Changing to a more frequent commission review would likely not result in better government but instead would introduce unnecessary changes and work for county staff, thus unnecessary costs to Clark County and its residents,” Latta wrote.

Latta noted the current 10-year term is the same as five of the state’s six other “charter counties” and that revisions, if needed, can always be proposed through the county council or by citizen initiatives.

The Just Vote No group said the charter was created in good faith by a bipartisan group of citizens and should be left as is.

“How often would you trigger an automatic review of the U.S. Constitution? Think of our charter as a constitution for Clark County,” the site said. “We don’t believe the average American would automatically create a new system to potentially change our U.S. or our Washington state constitution.”

Proposition 5

The amendment would add a code of ethics and autonomous review process to the home rule charter. All county departments, elected officials and groups or individuals receiving funding through the county budget must comply with the ethics code. Penalties for violating the code would still have to be established.

The charter committee said this will help “ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of the community, not for personal gain, and most importantly, that the public can have confidence in the integrity of its government.”

Just Vote No says, “the board wants a way to cover their tracks by bringing in another group of “YES” men or women that won’t enforce any of the rules they set forth.” The group also questions how much the review process would cost taxpayers.

Proposition 6

This would establish an office of diversity, equity and inclusion and a new nine-member commission with that same focus. The commission would review budget allocations, classification and compensation development, and recruitment and would be under the county manager’s office.

The county manager would appoint one person as chief officer, who would serve in an advisory manner to the county manager, county council and other county officers and departments.

According to the charter committee, “Workforce equity demands that Clark County identify and address structural and policy barriers to equal employment opportunities faced by our employees and communities because of race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation or other protected classes.” It also said the change would help create a workplace and community where everyone can reach their full potential.

Just Vote No sees the amendment as wasteful spending. “Taxpayer money doesn’t need to be used on creating another committee that may never move the needle within the charter,” the site said, adding the county has more pressing issues it needs to focus on.

“We’re finding lot of changes in what the values are in the community… Diversity, equity and inclusion is a big deal now,” Green said. “Ethics is a big deal, partisanship is a huge deal now.”

Proposition 7

According to the resolution, this amendment makes minor corrections and technical clarifications to the charter. Examples include changing “provide” to “establish,” and changing “his or her” to “their.” Additional language is included to clarify relevant state statutes and provide further details for proposed salaries and redistricting boundaries.

Lasher said the seven propositions will provide for better overall accountability and transparency, something people really want to see from their government.

But these are not the only amendments the charter committee considered. At one point, Green said, the committee had 15 to 20 amendments on the table.

“We would have overwhelmed people with that many amendments, so we settle on our top priorities,” Green said.

Voters will likely see another round of charter amendments on the 2022 ballot. Winningham said the next review committee will likely have to look at adding additional districts to better represent the county’s constituents.

Proposition 8

This amendment to the county charter comes from the county council at the request of Auditor Greg Kimsey and specifies changes related to processing initiatives, mini-initiatives and referenda petitions.

It states that petitions must be filed with the county auditor, and clarifies certain terms, such as “petition” and specifies when certain deadlines are triggered. For example, initiative petitioners will have 120 days after receipt of the prosecuting attorney’s statement to collect signatures, while referenda petitioners will have 120 days from the date of delivery of the ballot title.

According to the county, Proposition 8 also would improve the ability of sponsors of local initiatives, mini-initiatives or referendums to understand the required process.

Proposition 9

Also brought forward by the county council, Proposition 9 addresses eligibility to vote on certain initiatives, mini-initiatives and referenda. If approved, it would allow only registered voters in unincorporated Clark County to file and sign petitions for and to vote on initiatives, mini-initiatives, and referenda relating to ordinances for unincorporated areas of Clark County.

In the voters’ pamphlet, the county said, “Being able to vote on issues that directly impact you is a fundamental right that should not be diluted by voters who reside where these laws do not apply.”