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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Clark County Council approves charter amendments to address sheriff’s salary, redistricting

Voters will vote on the initiative process, a raise for the sheriff and changes to the redistricting process in November

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 5, 2024, 6:01am

Come November, Clark County voters will once again be tasked with approving or rejecting proposed amendments to the county charter.

The Clark County Council unanimously approved putting three charter amendments on the ballot at its June 25 meeting. Councilor Michelle Belkot was absent from the meeting.

Voters will be asked to approve an increase in the county sheriff’s salary, a position currently held by John Horch. If approved, the measure would set the sheriff’s salary 8 percent higher than the highest step of the undersheriff salary range, which is $18,300 per month or $219,600 annually. With the 8 percent increase, the sheriff’s salary would be $19,764 per month or $237,168 per year.

As of July 1, the current salary for the sheriff’s position is $156,396.

County Manager Kathleen Otto said the current salary, like those for other elected officials, is set by the charter and is adjusted annually by the Washington State Salary Commission.

The county has been working to bring salaries up to par with other jurisdictions, especially law enforcement pay. Elected officials have been exempted from those increases.

“I think this is an issue of being fair and equitable and making sure the top elected law enforcement officer in the county, in the sheriff’s office, is paid an appropriate salary,” Council Chair Gary Medvigy said during the meeting.

Although the charter has been updated, the language about the sheriff’s salary is outdated. The charter states the sheriff’s salary, in 2014, is $106,224 and will be adjusted based on changes established by the state salary commission.

Redistricting

The current charter calls for a redistricting committee to be formed after the decennial U.S. Census is completed to adjust council district boundaries as needed. The local Republican and Democratic parties submit a list of five names to the county council, from which the county council selects four individuals — two from each party — to serve on the committee. A fifth committee member is then chosen by the four members appointed by the council.

If passed by voters, the ballot measure would increase the number of redistricting committee members to seven. Similar to the current structure, the county council would select six members and the seventh member would be selected by the committee members. However, the local political parties would no longer submit a list of names for consideration.

County Auditor Greg Kimsey said during the council meeting the need for the amendment grew out of the last redistricting effort in 2022, which encountered several snags and eventually ended up in court.

“It clarifies what I believe the original goal of the charter was, which is that the technical, trained specialist — the redistricting master — has the responsibility of creating the plan,” Kimsey told the council.

The amendment also specifies that a redistricting master be qualified by education, training and experience. Kimsey said that language was already included in state law but was left out of the charter.

“I think it’s a good idea to put in the charter itself the criteria that redistricting is supposed to follow,” Kimsey told the council.

Medvigy said the changes would eliminate the possibility of the council having no new map to consider because the redistricting committee could not reach consensus, as happened in 2022.

“Either it will be the plan that the (Geographic Information Systems) specialist — the master — creates or the supermajority, which would be a vote of five,” Kimsey said. “If the five (members) overrule that and amend it, then we get that plan.”

Kimsey said eliminating the participation of local political parties aligns with voters changing the county’s elected offices to nonpartisan positions.

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Initiatives

The last of the three proposed charter amendments would change the initiative process.

If approved, the amendment would require the Clark County Budget Office to provide information about any financial impacts of the initiative.

Clark County is one of seven counties with an initiative process. While the majority of cities within Washington have an initiative option, only counties with a home rule charter have that process.

The charter amendment would also require an initiative sponsor to include statements about the legality of a proposed initiative from the prosecuting attorney’s office.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Kimsey said the proposed charter amendment does not change the power of the__ prosecuting attorney’s office.

“There’s nothing that changes, in any way, the role of the prosecuting attorney’s office. The prosecuting attorney is currently asked to provide an opinion on whether or not the subject of the initiatives is outside of the scope of what initiatives can affect,” he said.

Kimsey also said the amendment would not increase restrictions on voters’ ability to propose or enact an initiative, to place an initiative on the ballot or to approve a ballot initiative.

The last change would affect the number of signatures required to get certain initiatives on the ballot. If an initiative only affects unincorporated areas of the county, the number of signatures needed would be based on the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election from the unincorporated areas.

The amendment does not change the number of days sponsors have to gather signatures, Kimsey said.

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