Column from August 3, 2001 - Peninsula Daily News       

Charter has little impact on politicos

By Martha M. Ireland

It's enough to make a body wonder why Clallam County bothers to have a Home Rule Charter. Jefferson County seems to get along just fine without "home rule," while Clallam mucks around in charter issues.

Clallam's charter lays out a very clear course of action as to how the commissioners shall respond to a petition from the citizens.

In law, shall indicates a mandated action, should is advisory, and may permits without requiring. The charter repeatedly uses the word shall in directing the commissioners to schedule a public hearing on any ordinance change proposed by an initiative.

Recently, citizens brought such a petition--one, incidentally, which I did not sign or support--regarding repeal of the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Chris Melly advised the commissioners to comply with the charter which requires a hearing.

Two of the three commissioners chose to ignore the charter and review the legality of the petition in court first. It would be legally acceptable to schedule the required hearing and simultaneously take the issue to court, but that is not what they did.

Ironically, one of the commissioners ignoring the home rule charter is Mike Doherty, a member of the first freeholders committee that drafted the charter.

This is not the first time the charter has been ignored.

I served on the 1994 charter review commission. That year, the voters defeated a proposed amendment to make the charter match a 1993 state law that allows only one open public hearing on land use applications.

Local citizens clearly wanted to continue having two hearings--one before the planning commission (now often the hearing examiner) and one before the elected commissioners.

Two years later, as a county commissioner, I suggested that we obey the decision of local voters by choosing to abide by the charter, rather than by state law, regarding the allowed/required number of hearings.

Attorney Melly said it could be argued either way, but also said he was inclined to think that, if taken to court, state law would prevail over the charter.

Considering that all sides wanted the additional hearing, I asked, "Who would take us to court?"

Still, the majority of the commissioners went along with Melly's cautious approach. The citizens did not get the hearings they wanted.

Now we are gearing up for another charter review, with 44 citizens vying for the 15 seats on the review committee. Several candidates are supporters of the just-mishandled petition.

Don't expect a lot of electioneering. Candidates generally stand, rather than run, for seats on the review panel. Selections tend to be based on name familiarity--giving news-making activists and folks who have roads named for their families a distinct advantage.

A home rule charter is supposed to give local people greater control over their local government. Of the five home rule charter counties in the state, Clallam made the fewest changes from standard county structure. Except for the very urban, mega-population counties, other charter counties have not found that home rule solved any of the problems that led them to write charters in the first place.

Changing Clallam's governmental structure would likely be an exercise in futility as a majority of five or seven or nine part-time councilors could ignore the charter just as easily as two-out-of-three full-timers.

Martha Ireland was former county commissioner for Clallam County, WA.  She writes for the Peninsula Daily News.

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