MARVIN CASE

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 marvincase@msn.com.

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(7) comments

Betty Sue

Craig Sayre, Mr. Case is actually incorrect. Under the Charter the Councilors will not be able to raise their own salaries nor does it appoint it's own salary commissioner. Section 5.5 C 1 early ties the Council salaries directly to any percentage raise given the Washington State Legislators. And should the State Legislators ever become full time, the percentage change of the councilors shall be tied to the percentage change given the executive branch. There are no provisions in the Charter that would allow Councilors to continue setting their own salaries as they do now, or to appoint a salary commission of their own.

Craig Sayre

Mr. Case brings up a point that I've not seen mentioned elsewhere. The initial salaries would be set at $53K, but as he pointed out, that would inevitably be increased to equal the current total compensation package received by Commissioners today. There is nothing in the charter to prevent that.

Another point to make is that the taxpayer would be on the hook for county managers who are separated for cause. Experience shows us that separation packages, even for cause, are expensive. There is nothing in the charter that would place any controls on separation packages.

K Hinton

Supporters of the Clark County's Home Rule Charter offer a lot of wild speculation, partisanship and Voodoo in their short-sighted effort to sabotage the people's government.

In the end, when it comes to credibility and reasoning, if I'm forced to chose between Mr. Goodman, who has a vested dog in this fight or Mr. Case, who does not, that choice is easy.

Charter supporters, for example, point our falsehoods such as this:

"Currently, the only real check voters have on Commissioners is to wait four years and not re-elect them, but under Clark County's Home Rule Charter, voters get to approve or reject controversial ordinances."

The ballot box is the only "real check" we have on ANY elected official. And, it's the only "check" we need, a check that we lose on 3 of the 5 "councilors" who are NOT held accountable county-wide for their decisions.

Further, we never see the charter supporters include the list of items that we CAN'T vote on, or that once we get this charter, we can never, ever rid ourselves of it... as they gloss over both the horrifically high number of signatures required even to get a question on the ballot (37,000+ to get an amendment to the charter on the ballot)

So, as the more rabid supporters keep telling us that we can "approve or reject controversial ordinances" they fail to mention the high hoops required to actually make such a change, or list the many areas (Most, in fact) where we have NO say: so let me help them with that:

We have no right to vote on the following:

1. Ordinances providing for compensation or working conditions of county employees or elected officials
2. Redistricting council districts.
3. Authorizing or repealing an appropriation of money or any portion of the annual budget.
4. Authorizing or repealing taxes or fees.
5. Authorizing or repealing any provision of a service or program provided by the county.
6. Amending or repealing this charter.

Odd, isn't it? Mr. Goodman spends all this time telling us what we CAN vote on, but fails to mention what we CAN'T.

Do not be fooled: few, if any of the Charter supporters voted for David Madore, and this is the fallback position for their failed efforts to find an excuse to recall him.

Their anger at these men is simply not enough justification to rip our current government apart, reduce county-wide accountability for our leaders and make this county's government an outgrowth of Vancouver so we all, ultimately, wind up jumping through their hoops.

Ron Goodman

Clark County's Home Rule Charter locks out abuse while expanding citizen power with more county legislators responding to fewer constituents, election by district, the ability to amend the county structure through popular vote, and to initiate proposals by petition, or refer unpopular ordinances to a vote of the people to affirm or reject. So at the same time citizen power is expanded, Clark County's Home Rule Charter provides voters tools to limit elected officials power. Currently, the only real check voters have on Commissioners is to wait four years and not re-elect them, but under Clark County's Home Rule Charter, voters get to approve or reject controversial ordinances.

Opponents to Clark County's Home Rule Charter offer a lot of wild speculation and Voodoo in their short-sighted effort to sabotage the people's document.

Short-sighted, because they feel like they're King of the Mountain now, but aren't projecting how just a couple votes could up-end their status. The Charter was crafted by partisans from both sides - and despite Mr. Case's objections to partisanship, this is a good thing, because they worked to create a system both sides can live with if the other were to get the upper hand.

The Clark County Home Rule Charter is 'The People's Document' because more than 100 of our fellow residents ran for election to help craft it, and we selected the 15 we thought best-suited for the task.

More than 800 counties and 3,500 cities – including Battle Ground and Ridgefield - have instituted a council manager form of government, the prevailing form in all counties over 50,000 population, to save money and to increase accountability.

IBM found that governments that switch to council-manager are an average 10% more efficient with taxpayer resources than those that don't. With a Clark County budget approaching $1 Billion, that could mean nearly $100-million per biennium. http://icma.org/.../Document/303182/Smarter_Faster_Cheaper

Washington voters amended our State Constitution in 1948 to provide Home Rule for counties, which enables counties to govern by community voting over local matters, without statewide legislative intervention, while also giving county voters the power of direct legislation; government that is structured according to our unique history, geography, economy, and demographics. A government uniquely by and for Clark County.

Clark County's citizen-drafted Home Rule Charter, for the first time, puts local control in local hands. Modeled on the U.S. Constitution, it separates powers into legislative and executive branches, places limits on each, brings the legislators closer to those they represent, and ensures professional management for county services. This local Constitution is amendable by a majority of local voters and empowers them to initiate citizen proposals and refer County Council ordinances for all voters to consider.

I've thought of Marvin Case as an attentive listener, and I presume he must be a careful reader, but some of the conclusions he arrives at belie that care and attention.

"Under the present system, responsibility for action or inaction is clear. There are three elected county commissioners," Case says, but that multi-headed beast makes things very unclear under the current structure, not only for constituents, but for employees as well. Staff is supposed to work for 'the board,' not for individual commissioners, and receive its marching orders from the County Administrator. That's how its written in the Commissioners' own Rules and how it was done for 20 years, but under the current regime, that has all been altered and chains of command have become muddled and confused.

"Clark County employees say they view the county as “an increasingly political organization where favoritism, cronyism and pressure to conform appear to influence how policies and procedures may be implemented,” according to a work environment survey." http://blogs.columbian.com/all-politics-is-local/favoritism-cronyism-pressure-conform-lost-county-employees/

Clark County's Home Rule Charter restores a clear and unwavering chain-of-command: employees report only to one boss, the County Manager, and the County Manager has one boss - the County Council as a governing body.

Mr. Case suggests that the Charter would encourage buck-passing, but that is more inherent in the current system, where all commissioners are elected at-large, and are free to say, "go complain to the other two; it ain't me." Under the charter, councilmembers are elected by district and are directly answerable to their geographical constituents.

Mr. Case apparently wasn't paying attention as Clark County's Home Rule Charter was being drafted, for he says, "The hired county manager would have considerable power while the elected councilors would be weakened." He has that 'exactly backwards.' Freeholders opted against an elected executive, who would have their own power base, and for an appointed County Manager whose power is solely derived from and totally dependent on the elected Council Members. It is the elected County Council that has the power under Clark County's Home Rule Charter.

75-million voters in more than 800 counties and 3,600 cities have chosen this form of governance because it increases accountability, efficiency, and professionalism in the delivery of county services.

Mr. Case says he opposes a move from three to five elected county legislators because it creates more political jobs, totally ignoring that the cost to taxpayers will be the same or less, but more importantly, ignoring the widespread evidence that more voices and greater diversity create better decisions and better policy. More voices increases the likelihood of compromise that results in more balanced approaches to governance, whereas under the current system, two individuals in agreement can and have locked out all other voices.

I'm truly surprised that Mr. Case completely misrepresents the salary mechanism, which will be controlled by an independent state salary commission that - very stingily - controls state legislator's pay. County elected officials pay will move - or more often, not move - in unison with the pay of state legislators, and if the state's part-time legislators were switched to full time, that would not double county elected officials pay, as Mr. Case implies. Instead, they would then be controlled by the percentage change in state executive branch salaries.

Equally startling to me in a journalist I have respected, is the absence of accuracy in this oft-repeated canard: "the charter specifies that only the council chair can speak on behalf of the county, effectively muzzling four elected officials." The C-TRAN by-laws state, "The voting members of the Board shall act as a body in making its decisions and announcing them. No member shall speak or act for the Board without prior authorization of the Board except as otherwise provided for in these bylaws.[...] The Chair shall act as a spokesman for C-TRAN and shall act as its representative at meetings with other organizations, committees and other such activities unless such representative shall otherwise be authorized by the Board; provided, however, the Chair may delegate to any voting Board Member the duty of being a spokesman or representative for C-TRAN." No one has ever suggested or would suggest that this provision muzzles David Madore. The Charter, as do the C-TRAN by-laws, states that one person speaks for the governing body, but each member is free to speak for themselves on both governing boards. This IS America. I'm truly disappointed Mr. Case would misrepresent this provision in this manner. He knows better.

You should vote 'Yes' because Clark County's Home Rule Charter, and the professional management it requires
• Promotes ethical government through commitment to a set of ethical standards that goes beyond those required by law
• Encourages inclusion and builds consensus among diverse interests (including those of elected officials, the business community, and citizens) by focusing on the entire community rather than the centralized interests of one or two individuals
• Promotes equity and fairness by ensuring that services are fairly distributed and that administrative decisions (such as hiring and contracting) are based on merit rather than favoritism
• Develops and sustains organizational excellence and promotes innovation. Professional managers focus relentlessly on efficient and equitable service delivery, policy implementation, and evaluation.
http://icma.org/.../Professional_Local_Government...

It is time for Clark County voters to assert local control over local matters, and to adopt the structure that combines the strong political leadership of elected officials in the form of a council, with the strong professional managerial experience of an appointed local government manager, while giving voters the power to limit both. The form that establishes a representative system where all power is concentrated in the elected council and in the hands of voters.
Vote CharterYes!

K Hinton

"Increasing elected representatives from 3 to 5" in NO WAY "approves accountability."

How, for example, are the Vancouver-centric councilers going to be held accountable by north county voters who will no longer be able to have any say as a result of their CTran-style decisions, where the will of the people is routinely ignored?

South county councilors will no more be accountable to us than Tim Leavitt.

See, here's the thing: when the Charter supporters start with an absurdity Like David Olsen has, the rest of his argument falls apart.

Again, if this charter is voted in, we're stuck with it. Forever. We cannot get rid of it.

Pete, for example, tells us:

"and I mean the hirings and firings and the employee depletion, including Kevin Gray, Don Benton, Peter Silliman, and Pete Capell - the current structure allows abuse and now contains abuse."

The weakness in his position is almost indescribably huge.

Had those names been, say, Jim Moeller, Craig Pridemore, or Alisha Topper, would we be seeing any of this? If democrats had kept control of the commission, would any of this have happened?

At the end of the day, the basis behind this effort is rank partisanship. As it is now, if the people of this county don't like these hirings, as Pete and many other Charter supporters claim, then we can hold those responsible for those hirings accountable at the ballot box when they run for re-election.

There's all kind of idiocy a county council can engage in where, once again, exactly like the CRC, we will not be allowed to have any say.

So, what the charter people now tell us is that somehow, our vote for countywide commissioner being reduced from 3 to 1 is a better deal.

That the fact we can now hold all 3 commissioners accountable at the ballot box is somehow worse than holding 1 countywide councilor accountable.

Like the rest of this charter, none of that makes any sense. And there are far more reasons to vote against this partisanship than there is to vote for it.

Kudos to Marvin Case for doing the thing that Charter supporters have yet to do:

Tell the truth.

David Olson

Mr. Case makes a number of arguments against the charter. I would like to offer my rebuttal, point by point:

1. The charter's separation of powers diminishes accountability, allowing politicians to point fingers and avoid responsibility.

In fact, The charter improves accountability by increasing elected representatives from three to five and electing them by district. This reduces the number of constituents for each representative and dedicates representation from specific geographical regions. If voters don't like how their representatives perform in office, they know who's responsible. It's why the current form of government might work for lesser-populated counties...the way Clark County once was...but not for Clark County's current and future growth. Basically, it boils down to the number of elected residents per voter. The lower the ratio, the better chance for voter access to our elected representatives.

2. The public doesn't know where to express grievances of affect change.

Increasing council size and electing representatives by district helps voters know exactly where to go to complain or request action: the councilor in their district whom they elected. It is up to that councilor to be responsive and accountable to the district he or she represents, just like any other elected representative.

3. Councilors would have diminished power from those of current commissioners, and would be reduced to submitting requests to the county manager to investigate constituent issues.

I recommend to anyone who finds this argument compelling to read the current county commission's Rules of Practice, specifically on Page 8. Its description of the relationship of the county administrator to the commission is nearly identical to the relationship between the charter's "unelected manager" and the council. In either case a majority of the elected body hires--or fires--the manager based on performance. An unresponsive, uncommunicative and bureaucratic manager who isn't meeting job performance expectations can be fired at any time under the charter. Putting it in personal terms, if my boss came to me with a grievance or something to look into, I'd be inclined to make sure I followed up. The same should hold true for the "unelected manager."

4. Election of councilors by district represents a parochial outlook on county government.

If by parochial you mean more accountable to a smaller group of voters in each district, then I support parochial every time. But I think Mr. Case's point is that such representation would be more likely to espouse a narrow, district-only view on controversial issues at the expense of the greater good of the county. First, I would argue we are seeing a lot of narrow-mindedness with our existing setup. But more importantly as it applies to the proposed charter, having a five-member council greatly reduces the chance for tie-vote gridlocks similar to what we see in Washington, D.C., as a result of gerrymandered redistricting where lawmakers represent the safe, extreme views of their respective bases. Five members also keep the council functioning if one or two members are unable to participate for any reason, as well as giving each council member the ability to communicate one-on-one with another councilor without breaking the state's open meetings law. I would think Mr. Case as a journalist would be supportive of that. His suggestion that this could lead to some sort of two-member cabals to subvert the will of voters by meeting in private leads me to think he is better served trying to strengthen the Open Meetings Act, not oppose the charter.

5. Additional elected representatives would be expensive because of how salaries could be increased by the State Salary Commission, and that the county manager's salary would no doubt be "substantial."

Mr. Case's assertions concerning the workings of the state salary commission are factually incorrect. The commission only sets salaries for state elected officials; it has no jurisdiction to set local government officials' pay. The charter provides only that the councilors would receive the same percent of pay increase that the commission awards to state legislators. More importantly, the salary of the county manager will be set by the council. The charter's definition of the manager's role differs little from the current county administrator's job description, therefore it would be unlikely the manager's salary would increase significantly. If the salary somehow is significantly increased, that's on the elected representatives, not the form of government. What prevents the current commissioners from overpaying the current administrator?

6. The charter calls for councilors to run as Republican, Democrats or some other party, and there is no reason these positions to be partisan.

The charter provides a mechanism to make changes in the future, if voters at some point decide non-partisan positions are preferable. I agree with Mr. Case that non-partisan may be better, but not passing the charter would make this sort of change extremely difficult if not impossible politically.

I believe the charter is our best opportunity to improve efficiency and accountability in our county government. I thank The Reflector and Mr. Case for the opportunity to make these rebuttals.

Pete

Hi Marvin,

Just read your piece on the Home Rule Charter. It was surprisingly negative. I urge you to take a step back and try a positive view of this County government remodel.

This is a real chance for the citizens to have a better government structure. Whether you take it from the point of view that the current form dates to 1889 when there were 11,000 Clarke County citizens or from the view of the abuses of today - and I mean the hirings and firings and the employee depletion, including Kevin Gray, Don Benton, Peter Silliman, and Pete Capell - the current structure allows abuse and now contains abuse.

Rarely is a change perfect. Remember being a new spouse or parent? There were baby steps to be taken in the relationship but you knew you were on the right path. That's where we are going with the new Charter.

Our most basic tenet in high school social studies (civics) class was the necessity for separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government to provide a system of checks and balances to prevent abuse. We need this separation in our County government.

Please don't predict negative things will happen like excesses of pay. You didn't predict failure in your other endeavors, I'll guess, and with proper diligence and regular attention (nourishment and upbringing) the Charter system will work for us very well.

Please re-examine this Charter plan from the positive side and see if it doesn't begin to make sense to you. You do wield considerable influence and I wouldn't want you to convince people to go in the wrong direction.

Change is hard. It usually is. This proposed change is to bring our County government up to modern expectations. We're not a rural fur trading community anymore.

Lastly I offer Steve Foster's letter to the Columbian of 09/29/14. He makes a real point that we certainly would not vote for the current organization.
"Letter: Re-evaluate current governing

Published: September 29, 2014, 6:00 AM
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The anti-charter people are quick to ask "what's wrong" or to say the current county structure is working just fine. Well just for fun, let's flip the formula. If the current model was on the ballot as a proposed charter, would you vote for this?

A board of three commissioners:

Has both legislative and executive authority.

Has the power to set their own salaries.

Currently paid $106,000 per year plus benefits package worth thousands of dollars more per year.

Only two votes required for any action.

All three elected countywide in the general election so urban/Vancouver voters can sway the vote for all three positions.

Citizens have no power of initiative or referendum.

Steve Foster

Vancouver"
Thanks,
Pete Aller
Vancouver

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