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Saturday, June 3, 2023
June 3, 2023

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6 Clark County charter amendments on ballot

Ranked choice, diversity officer among proposals

By , Columbian staff writer

Along with the local, state and federal races on the November general election ballot, voters will also decide six proposed amendments to Clark County’s governing charter. The amendments were placed on the ballot by the elected Clark County Charter Review Commission before it disbanded at the end of 2021.

The six measures are in addition to the seven charter amendments the commission placed on the November 2021 ballot. Former Charter Review Commissioner Chuck Green said the commission chose to split the 13 proposed amendments across two election cycles to avoid overwhelming voters.

In November 2014, voters approved a home rule charter, replacing the county commissioner system of government. The charter calls for periodic review; the 2021 review was the first in that series and generated a lot of suggestions about how to make the new charter better.

The proposed amendments on this year’s ballot have met with some resistance. The most vocal opposition comes from the People United for Clark County political action committee.

According to the Public Disclosure Commission, 88 percent of the committee’s $19,700 in donations has come from Cemal Richards. Richards was one of two Republican representatives on the now-disbanded Clark County Redistricting Committee. The Clark County Republican Party is also urging a “no” vote on all six amendments. The Clark County Democrats do not make any recommendations about the amendments on their website.

Here is more information about the proposed charter amendments:

Proposition 10

This amendment would add ranked choice voting to the ballot starting in 2026. If the measure passes, it would apply to the 11 nonpartisan county offices: treasurer, auditor, clerk, assessor, sheriff, prosecuting attorney and five county council seats.

Unlike traditional ballots where voters pick one candidate for each office, ranked-choice voting lets voters rank candidates by preference, i.e. first, second, third, etc. If more than 50 percent of voters pick a single candidate as their first choice, then the candidate wins.

If no candidate claims a majority, the person who got the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated. For the voters who favored the lowest-earning candidate, their votes go to their second choices.

Lisa Ayrault, director of Bothell-based nonprofit FairVote Washington, said the benefit of ranked choice voting is that “you get to rank your choices on the ballot. … That way, if your first choice doesn’t have enough support to win, then your vote isn’t wasted. It counts for your backup choice.”

Clark County Councilor Richard Rylander Jr. is among those opposing the measure. Rylander contributed to the “against” statement included in the voters pamphlet for the November general election which states, “there is no easy way to validate the results” of an election using ranked choice voting.

Proposition 11

This measure would change the hiring process for the county manager. If approved, the amendment would require the Clark County Council to consult with the county’s six executive elected officials – auditor, treasurer, clerk, assessor, sheriff and prosecuting attorney – in a public meeting before hiring a manager.

“What we heard from some of the executive electeds last year was that the last two rounds, when the county council appointed a county manager, they have felt left out of that deliberation process,” said Green.

Green said requiring the council to hold a public meeting, one which executive elected officers are invited to attend, would provide greater transparency. He noted the executive elected officials would not have a vote in who is appointed county manager but would be invited to share their feedback.

“What it’s trying to do is allow good communication between elected officials,” said former Treasurer Doug Lasher, who also served on the charter review commission.

Opponents such as Carolyn Crain and Tom Goldman say “The council already has the freedom to consult with other elected officials during the hiring process,” according to the voters pamphlet. People United for Clark County also recommended rejecting the measure, noting if an elected official refuses to attend the public meeting the measure would “unintentionally grant veto power to those officials.”

Lasher said that’s not accurate. He said the measure gives elected officials an opportunity to share their opinions but doesn’t require their participation.

Proposition 12

This measure would add a preamble to the county charter defining the role of county government. The preamble in part acknowledges that modern Clark County sits on land once occupied by indigenous people. It goes on to say “We acknowledge and honor their rich heritage, culture, and contributions, past and present. We value a vibrant, inclusive and diverse community that fosters peace, mutual tolerance, and respect for each other’s dignity, privacy, freedoms, and responsibilities.”

Opponents argue the measure forces “woke” politics into the county charter. In their against statement included in the voters pamphlet, People United for Clark County members Liz Pike, Kirk VanGelder and George Hacker wrote, “a preamble is written when a document is originally written” and that “it is being added as an afterthought since it was not written and included by the original commission that wrote the Clark County Home Rule Charter. Had it been part of the original draft of the charter, it likely would have doomed the charter’s adoption.”

After seeing that other counties included a preamble in their charters, former charter review commissioner John Latta said it “seemed like a good idea to express in words the intent and underlying principles of the charter to, maybe, inspire future leaders.”

Green said the preamble would also help clarify the intent of the charter to the public.

“One of the things we heard from some of the original freeholders is that they were so focused on just getting the charter pieced together, drafted and put on the ballot, they really hadn’t considered a preamble,” Green said.

Lasher said everything included in the preamble is already required by state law.

Proposition 13

This measure changes how the county’s executive elected offices are filled when a vacancy occurs. The measure would add a section to the charter requiring the executive elected officers to provide a certified list of senior office employees to serve if the position became vacant, but only until the next general election.

“Basically, we’re trying to get continuity of operations in an office,” Lasher said. “It’s no different than what the law allows now.”

Currently, the county charter does not define how a nonpartisan elected office is temporarily filled if it becomes vacant, although state law does. That process allows the county council chair to nominate three individuals. The names are then presented to the county council for approval.

Lasher said the measure would allow the elected official to select a more qualified and knowledgeable person for the role. He said the county’s six executive elected officials also support the measure.

Proposition 13 also clarifies the process for appointing someone to a vacant county council position.

The ballot measure calls for a majority of the county council to appoint an individual to serve until the office is filled at the next election but also requires the council to provide public notice of the vacancy and application process, which is to be held open for 21 days or longer.

Lasher said creating a process open to the public is what voters have wanted.

The last council vacancy occurred in early 2022 when Eileen Quiring O’Brien resigned. In accordance with the current process, Council Chair Karen Bowerman solicited applications, then selected three candidates for council review. When the council failed to reach a majority vote for any of the three candidates, the decision was ultimately left to Gov. Jay Inslee, who appointed Rylander.

Opponents of the measure say it doesn’t address what happens if the council fails to reach a majority vote, as happened when the council filled Quiring O’Brien’s vacant seat.

They also contend the amendment puts the succession in the hands of the vacating official and bypasses the county council’s authority.

“Should elected officials have the sole right to name their replacement without due process or requirement that an election be held within a reasonable period of time in the event of a vacancy?” Juan Gamboa of People United for Clark County wrote in the against statement. “While the overall intent may have been a good faith attempt to come up with a replacement system, this proposal is fatally flawed.”

“We believe that it’s important for these administrative offices to have the people who have the knowledge and skill sets to manage them,” Lasher said.

Proposition 14

With Clark County’s growth continuing to outpace much of the rest of the state, the charter review commission said it was time to change the mini-initiative, initiative and referendum process. If passed, the amendment would reduce the number of signatures needed to submit a petition for an initiative or referenda from 10 percent of total votes cast in the last governor’s race to 8 percent. It would also allow signatures gathered for an initiative to be transferred to a mini-initiative.

“What we were trying to is make an adjustment because of population growth,” Lasher said. “If it’s kept at 10 percent, it increases the number of signatures needed,” adding it’s become increasingly difficult for organizers to obtain enough signatures to move a petition forward.

Terri Niles also served on the charter review commission and helped draft the proposed amendment. Niles said there are very few counties that require 10 percent of voters’ signatures to submit an initiative petition.

“The only counties that can meet that threshold are very, very small counties,” Niles said. “As the county gets bigger, it’s going to get harder and harder to leave it at that percentage rate.”

Vancouver resident Bob Runnells co-authored the against statement that appeared in the voters pamphlet.

“This charter amendment does not substantially change the charter to favor the people’s power to petition,” Runnells wrote, adding the amendment does nothing to address “the unreasonably short deadline” to file a referendum after the county council passes an ordinance.

Runnels said Clark County has one of the most restrictive processes for allowing citizen petitions and it should be kept that way.

Proposition 15

Proposition 15 is a revised version of an amendment that failed to pass in 2021. If passed, Proposition 15 would create a diversity and inclusion officer position as well as an advisory commission. The amendment proposed in 2021 would have created a diversity and inclusion office.

After voters rejected it, Niles said the commission worked to make changes to the amendment based on the feedback they received.

Niles also said groups in the community asked the charter review commission to bring the ballot measure back this year because there is a need for diversity and inclusion at the county level.

“The most frequent feedback I got when connecting with folks after the (2021) election was that a lot of people thought it was going to be a whole big department. The main big change was to make it clearer as well as refining the scope and title,” said Chris Goodwin, a former charter review commissioner.

Goodwin noted the county previously had a designated employee in a similar role but that position was eliminated due to budget cuts.

Lasher said having a diversity and inclusion officer to provide oversight and training to county staff will reduce litigation costs.

“We’ve had a lot of lawsuits that taxpayers had to pay,” Lasher said. “By having somebody there to guide elected officials and their staff, you get better public service.”

Niles said passing the amendment also would save county money in ways such as hiring and employee retention.

VanGelder, Hacker and Ed Walawender provided the against statement, noting the amendment is unnecessary because discrimination is already illegal under county, state and federal law.

“It creates a new permanent, unaccountable layer of government,” they wrote.

With the position to be filled by county manager appointment, opponents argue the position would have great influence but little oversight.

“It will result in quotas and more divisiveness. A new diversity and inclusion officer will have undue influence over hiring, promotions, salaries, budgets, contracts, and much more. In the pursuit of diversity, quotas would be unjustly established based on favoring select groups of people,” the against statement reads.

Each of the proposed amendments needs a simple majority to pass