Last week I presented arguments that have convinced me to vote against the draft Clark County charter.
I said the division of responsibility between councilors and county management would leave the public uncertain as to how to affect change while giving politicians a free pass. The buck would no longer stop anywhere.
I said there is no need to expand from three to five commissioners/councilors, and that electing councilors by district instead of countywide would produce parochial visions.
I also argued against county offices being partisan.
In this concluding column, I offer more reasons that lead me to oppose the charter which, in general, is good for politicians and bad for the public.
Initiative process flawed
Yes, the charter would create a mechanism by which the public could enact laws or change laws through an initiative process. That would be a benefit for the citizens of Clark County although voters turned down this idea in 2002 with a 53 percent no vote.
However, Section 7.2.A of the draft charter lists several items that could not be done via initiative. Those items are:
• Changing the compensation of any county employee or elected officials
• Redistricting council districts
• Authorizing or repealing appropriation of money
• Authorizing or repealing taxes or fees
• Authorizing or repealing any provision of a service or program provided by the county, and
• Amending or repealing the charter.
What’s left? What could the public achieve via initiative?
A June 2014 report prepared by the state Municipal Research and Services Center contains a list of items that may be subject to initiative. The list includes such things as establishing dikes and levees, regulating sidewalks, removing debris, maintaining draw bridges, acquiring cemeteries, and regulating harbors. As desirable as the power of initiative and referendum would be, it’s practically useless as limited in the draft charter.
Moreover, the section of the draft charter on initiative and referendum (7.2.A) states that current law or court rulings are responsible for the listed limitations. However, a lawyer with the office of the state Attorney General referenced me to a 2003 state Supreme Court ruling that found just the opposite as regards changing the charter via initiative.
The issue of altering the county charter via initiative is further confused by Section 9.5 of the draft charter which provides for a public petition process for charter amendments. That section directly conflicts with Section 7.2.A. County auditor Greg Kimsey, an advocate for charter approval, says the erroneous statement in Section 7.2.A is an error and could be removed in the future – but only after the charter is approved.
Betty Sue Morris, co-chair of the pro-charter committee, described these sections of the draft charter as “mush,” and that future court challenges would be necessary to resolve the issue.
In addition, the draft charter requires too many signatures to get an initiative on the ballot. To qualify today, an initiative would need more than 18,500 signatures, an unreasonably high plateau. That would be good for politicians, but bad for the public.
Charter opens door to conflict
The draft charter leaves a puzzling question about conflict of interest. The charter states that elected or appointed county officials shall not directly benefit from contracts made by, through or under their supervision. The charter is silent on the subject of indirect benefits, so I guess benefiting indirectly is OK. Is that what the authors of this charter intended or is that sloppy writing?
Politicians push back against “no” vote
In 2002, a similar charter was offered to voters along with some specific alternatives. The charter lost, as did the various alternatives. But the alternative that lost by the largest vote margin (62% to 32%) was the proposed increase from three to five commissioners or councilors. Yet here it is again. That proposal should have been dropped this time around in deference to voter sentiment.
It’s the same as bringing up the CRC project again and leaving in light rail. The public doesn’t want it, but some politicians think they can just bring something up over and over and sooner or later the public will give in. You can bet your bottom dollar that if the five councilor idea is ever approved, there’s no going back – ever. It’s another example of politicians thinking they know what’s best rather than listening to the public.
A “fix it later” attitude
One of those who helped develop the current proposal told me that the group was advised not to make too many changes in the current governmental structure because voters would then be more inclined to turn it down. The goal seems to have been to get something – anything – passed and then fix it later.
That makes one wonder exactly what the goal is. Are the politicians seeking to get five commissioners and a county manager any way possible, and then change things later, or is this draft charter truly the best they can do toward designing good, efficient county government? Unfortunately, it appears that getting something passed is the higher priority here, with the idea that changes will be made later. That approach strikes me as sneaky.
Draft written by, for politicians
I believe 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.
As I wrote last week, 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.
A better approach would be for voters to defeat this draft charter and then be presented with a better version – councilors elected countywide, no confusing initiative “mush,” no separation of powers, non-partisan offices, and other improvements. That would be a charter we could all get behind.
Marvin Case may be reached at (360) 687-4122 and at email@example.com.