Several aspects of the proposed Clark County charter lead me to vote “No.”
The proposal may be lucrative for politicians, but it’s bad for the public.
Voters turned down a similar measure in 2002, and likely will give this ill-conceived plan the same fate, leaving the current system in place.
In this column and Part II to follow next week, I offer several arguments against the current proposal which will appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
Separation of responsibilities is bad idea
First, the proposal would separate the “legislative” and “executive” functions of county government. Proponents see this separation as prohibiting councilors from meddling in the workings of county departments and showing favoritism to their friends. I see it as allowing politicians to point fingers and avoid responsibility.
Under the present system, responsibility for action or inaction is clear. There are three elected county commissioners. They make laws, plans, rules, and budgets, and they oversee the implementation of all those things. If something goes wrong or could be improved, they are the ones to make changes, corrections or new laws.
Under the proposed charter, five (not three) elected councilors would make laws and set budgets, and a county manager would handle implementation. The public would be left not knowing where to express grievance or how to affect change. That would result in the councilors telling people to go talk to the manager, and the manager saying he/she is just implementing laws passed by the councilors. All of those in the system would be able to shirk responsibility.
In fact the draft charter specifically states that the elected councilors “shall not extend its authority” into the executive branch and shall not interfere in the administration of the executive branch, and that the councilors are to refer complaints or requests for information to the county manager. As regards public interaction, the authority of elected councilors is limited in the draft charter to submitting requests to the county manager to investigate constituent issues.
I prefer the present system in which responsibility is clear and the public knows exactly where to turn for change. As it is today, “the buck stops” with the county commissioners which may give politicians fits but is in the best interests of the public.
Some proponents point to the separation of powers at the federal level as a model for county government. Thoughtful citizens may wonder if they want the federal model running county government.
Betty Sue Morris, co-chair of the committee seeking to get the charter passed, believes councilors will somehow still be involved in resolving constituent issues just like always, although the draft charter states just the opposite. If the charter is approved, it’s likely that the public will have less influence on the direction of government, not more. The hired county manager would have considerable power while the elected councilors would be weakened.
No need for five councilors
Next, I oppose the change from three to five commissioners who would be called councilors if the charter is approved. I know the politicians want more public service jobs and this charter would create two more big-time jobs in a low-responsibility environment. But it is simply not necessary.
The current commissioners are elected countywide and are therefore responsible to every citizen regardless of area of residence. The charter proposes to elect four of the five councilors by district which would give them a parochial outlook. It’s probably easier for politicians to campaign by district, but again, it’s not in the best interests of the public.
In addition, having five councilors would allow them to meet in private, away from the public, in groups of two. Currently, they deliberate in public and are banned from talking among themselves in private because two creates a quorum. Five councilors would be able to talk in groups of two at any time which does not advance the cause of open government – good for politicians, bad for the public.
Also, additional elected officials would be expensive. Yes, the draft charter would reduce their pay, leaving benefits and travel expenses as the only extra cost. But I can see it coming: a salary commission will meet in a couple of years, compare Clark County councilor salaries with those in other counties, and decide that Clark County officials are underpaid. Then salaries will be right back where they are today except there will be five of them instead of three, earning $102,000 or more each per year plus about $40,000 each in benefits, taxes and travel stipend annually, as they do now (although commissioner David Madore does not accept the full salary or full benefits).
In fact, Section 5.5.C of the draft charter provides for councilor salary increases tied to a change from part time to full time state legislators.
In addition, there has yet to be an announcements as to the salary of the all-powerful county manager. That salary will likely be substantial.
Proponents argue that population growth in the county demands a larger number of commissioners. The fact is the public turned down the five commissioner idea in 2002 when the county population was about 365,000, or about 120,000 people per commissioner. Today the county population is estimated at 436,000 or about 145,000 people per commissioner – not much different.
Approval of the five councilor idea would result in a ratio of 87,000 people per councilor. Is that reduction necessary? Should we also expand the number of state representatives and senators due to population growth? It’s another invalid argument that only serves politicians, not the public.
Charter specifies partisan offices
The draft charter provides that county elective offices, including councilors, will be partisan positions. While officials often give lip-service to the importance of public service over partisan politics, and while many people see no need for the auditor, treasurer, clerk, sheriff, prosecuting attorney and assessor to be partisan, the draft charter states that all these people will run as Democrats, Republicans or something else. Having people run for these positions without party affiliation would force candidates to talk about issues rather than rely on party labels. These is no valid reason for all these offices to be partisan.
Moreover, the charter specifies that only the council chair can speak on behalf of the county, effectively muzzling four elected officials. And it completely ignores the issue of term limits.
Draft written by, for politicians
This proposed charter has all the earmarks of being good for politicians but bad for the public. The fact is that 12 of the 15 people who dreamed up this proposal were either current elected officials, previously elected officials, or former candidates, although one – State Rep. Liz Pike – voted against it, bless her heart. Also voting “No” were Tracy Wilson and Peter Silliman.
Those who are so anxious to change the way county government works should remember that the goal is to design a system of government that is effective, efficient, in the public interest, and able to endure over time. Changing the structure of government based on the personalities of those in office at any one time would be a mistake.
Only six of Washington’s 39 counties have adopted charters. The arguments contained in this column probably explain why that’s the case.
Next week: Next week I will offer more arguments against the draft charter in a column shorter than this one.
Marvin Case may be reached at (360) 687-4122 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.