Local paper vilifies elected commission for proposed changes to Home Rule Charter

By Sue Forde, Editor
Citizen Review Online

Sequim, WA – 7/27/02 – On Wednesday, July 24, 2002, the weekly newspaper in Sequim attacked the 15-member elected board of Home Rule Charter Commissioners, calling them “a group of special-interest, anti-government extremists gone awry.”  The purported reason for the charges was that the commission had put forth the idea of electing the director of the Department of Community Development (DCD), and a recommendation that “a charter revision proposal that would suspend any county ordinance with the signatures of 100 voters on a petition.”

The main editorial in the Sequim Gazette written by the editor (although no signature or byline was included), was headlined “Charter Proposal Bizarre.”  The paper is about to eat crow with its false statements and name-calling, if letters to the editor are printed in next week’s edition. Members of the commission and citizens alike are furious over the false allegations and erroneous statements made by the paper.

Over the past months, the Charter Review Commission has worked long and hard to develop changes to the county home rule charter (the county’s “constitution”), based on public hearings and input they’ve gathered since the election last November.

 Two major issues kept arising at the hearings: one was the complaint by many citizens of the problems arising out of the DCD with property matters, and the lack of response and arrogance by that department, whose staff and head seemed to put the environment before the people in their interpretation of various codes, particularly the Critical Areas Code.

The second was the resounding idea that the initiative and referendum processes needed to be strengthened, especially in view of what happened with Initiative 6 – the Repeal of the Critical Areas Code – which was short-circuited from going to the people for a vote last year by the county commissioners filing a Declaratory Judgment against Bob Forde, the initiative’s sponsor.

The commissioners, after long hours and many meetings, put together a number of changes which may go forward to the voters on the ballot, some this year, and some in 2003.  The League of Women Voters, led by Vicci Rudin, has been outspoken against the idea of electing the director of the DCD (as has the Director himself, Bob Martin, who has appeared before the commission numerous times to testify in favor of keeping his position an unelected one).  Because of the controversy, the decision whether to make his position an elected one will probably go to the people to decide. Rudin also admonished the commission not to change the number of signatures required to start a referendum.

The commission looked at, and incorporated, language from other counties around the state concerning the initiative and referendum process.  The new language, as proposed, places the procedure into easy-to-follow steps, with safeguards to get an initiative to the ballot instead of being shut down before getting to the people for a vote.  At the Home Rule Charter commission meeting on July 18, 2002, the following was passed unanimously by the board of commissioners, which was incorporated into the entire referendum section:  “Any registered voter of Clallam County may file a referendum proposal against an ordinance or portion thereof within 10 days of its adoption by the Board of Commissioners.”  On July 22, attorney Chris Melly made a suggestion to change the 10 days to 8 days, and that change was passed by the commission on July 25.

No mention of 100 signatures is made concerning the initiative process. (An initiative is the creation of a new law, or the repeal of a law, initiated by the people.)

The referendum process, which in the existing charter only requires one signature to get it started, would require 100 signatures under the proposed change, just to get it started, making it more difficult for “frivolous” referendums.  This is 100 times the number required now!  The referendum sponsor would have only 8 days to get those 100 signatures.  (A referendum deals with a law just passed by the county commissioners – it “refers” the law to the people – submits to popular vote - measure passed on or proposed by the county commissioners).

The Sequim Gazette ran a “news” story about the issue, entitled “Charter proposals baffle county leaders” (7.24.02).  They seemed to believe that “any ordinance could be under massive attack” and would “suspend any ordinance” with the 100-signature change, a statement which was inaccurate and misleading, to say the least.

“Any ordinance” could not be suspended under the proposal; only a new, proposed ordinance made by the county commissioners, if 100 signatures could be gathered within 8 days – not an easy feat.  That’s only to get the referendum started, and then 5% of the people who voted in the last general election would have to sign on in order to get it on the ballot for the vote of the rest of the people. 

“Any ordinance” would include the right of initiative – and the initiative process does not call for 100 signatures anywhere in the language.  The process for an initiative is different than that for a referendum.

Bob Forde, sponsor of Initiative 6, which apparently caused the changes to the charter to be proposed in the first place, was quoted as saying such an amendment would be “dangerous” in the hands of people like himself.  The statement was apparently pulled out of context from a public hearing held months ago, as he was never interviewed for the edition that has printed the statement, amounting to propaganda rather than an editorial, which is supposed to offer information.

The weekly paper also stated that Initiative 6 was “rejected” by the county, but failed to mention that the issue has been accepted for hearing by the judges at the state appeals court, and Forde’s side of the case has been joined with an amicus brief by prominent individuals and organizations.  Signers include two state representatives, a state senator, the state farm bureau, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, and a county.  It’s been deemed important enough an issue to be placed on the “fast track” with the courts, and many experts believe that the initiative will and be returned to the county for a vote of the people at long last.

Rudin, in a statement before the commission on July 25th, charged the commission using a “sleight of hand”.  She said she and the League “are especially chagrined at comment last week that the voters might not even have an opportunity to read entire the text you are proposing. In terms of the issue which it appears that you want the change in the structure of the initiative/referendum is the change in the number of votes necessary to implement the referendum process, that’s gotten a lot of coverage in the press this week, and I do urge you to reconsider that.  As I mentioned last week, we were concerned about the modification in the limitation in the initiative/referendum process.  I think you could get the county in a lot of trouble by changes in the initiative/referendum process.”

During the July 25th home rule charter commission meeting, Commissioner Rod Fleck, (also city attorney for the city of Forks), demanded an apology from Rudin and from the newspaper.  He and other board members were insulted by the inflammatory statements made.

Commissioner Richard Miller said he “took offense” at the newspaper’s article, and demands an apology, as well.

(The entire charter with its proposed changes can be picked up at the county courthouse or read online at http://www.clallam.net/bocc/bocc_charter.htm).

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