Clark County looks at Home Rule Charter: Freeholders ready for public comment

The Reflector

Battle Ground, WA - 3/9/02 - Public comments are being sought on a draft plan for changes in Clark County government.

The plan is to be finalized this summer and sent to voters in November for approval or rejection.

The plan is the product of a year-long study by the Clark County Board of Freeholders, an elected but unpaid group of citizens headed by Don Gardner of Battle Ground.

If approved by voters, county residents would gain the ability to make changes in the structure of county government beyond those included in the draft plan. Clark County would become only the six county in the state to have home rule.

Public meetings will be held March 18-27 at various locations in the county.

Plan elements

Don Gardner, who chairs the Freeholder group, said efforts were made to keep the initial plan simple and easy for voters to understand.

Called a Home Rule Charter, the plan leaves many details to be developed later, while setting out a few general specific changes in the way county government is organized.

More commissioners

Chief among those changes is the addition of two more county commissioners, expanding from three to five the size of the board of county commissioners.

Gardner said having a larger number of commissioners would allow two commissioners to meet at a time without forming a quorum. At present, no two commissioners can legally discuss pending matters outside of a public meeting.

Gardner said this change would result in better communication among those who manage county government.

The plan also specifies that commissioners would be elected from a specific district instead of at-large as under the present system.

Freeholder Vern Veysey said having more commissioners would help get more ideas open for consideration and "broader interests on the table."

On the other hand, more commissioners would cost more money, which could cost taxpayers as much as $500,000 more per year, according to freeholder Lance Burton.

Burton also argued that more commissioners won't increase citizen involvement in county government, one of the objectives of the charter process.

The freeholders did not attempt to draw boundaries for five commissioner districts. There is no certainty, said Burton, that the north county area would be its own district. He theorized that slices of urban Vancouver might be attached to rural parcels.

Current commissioners Judie Stanton and Craig Pridemore both favor the idea of more commissioners, while commissioner Betty Sue Morris is opposed.

Both Stanton and Pridemore said more commissioners would provide more opinions at meetings.

Pridemore also supports the in-district election plan, stating that outsiders could be more successful if they did not have to run countywide.

Stanton said those elected in just one district might be too provincial, and might be judged by voters solely on what projects they were able to get for their specific districts. She said commissioners need to study issues countywide.

Pridemore favored an elected county executive who would carry out policies adopted by the commissioners. The Freeholders considered but dropped the idea of an elected executive.

Both Pridemore and Stanton said they would support an expansion even to seven commissioners.

Morris said more commissioners without an elected executive would be unmanageable.

Morris said its hard for an appointed executive to get two commissioners to agree on something, let alone deal with five.

Factions could develop on the board, said Morris, with commissioners elected by district.

Morris said five commissioners would allow meetings in groups of two, which she said would be advantageous.

Initiative, referendum

The draft charter includes the powers of initiative and referendum.

If the charter is adopted, citizens would be able to create petitions and force government to take certain actions, and, through referendum, force government to change its policies.

Gardner argues that having such powers would make government more responsive to the people.

"Government would be aware that they need public support for their decisions," said Gardner. "The citizens would have more say."

Gardner said two freeholders oppose the initiative and referendum processes, arguing that a small number of people can take control of the process. Veysey said that some people argue people were elected to make decisions, and the power of initiative takes some of that power away.

Plan review

One of the main attributes of a local charter, said Gardner, is that the people can make changes at anytime. Public votes are required to change the plan.

As drafted, the plan would require an initial review 2-5 years after adoption, and reviews every 10 years thereafter. Those reviewing the plan would be elected.

Commissioners could also propose changes to the plan which would be placed before the voters at a subsequent general election.

Can it pass?

Gardner said the freeholders questioned along the way whether various proposals would help or hurt the chances for passage.

Gardner said people would be inclined to vote for passage because they would get better representation, and have more say in government through the initiative and referendum process.

People might also favor the plan because they would be able to make changes in government. Without a charter, the form of county government is dictated by the state.

"We are dealing with a form of government that was totally acceptable 100 years ago," said Gardner. "We are trying to create more public involvement."

Passage might be hampered, said Gardner, because people are generally happy with county government at present.

Burton said the cost of adding two more commissioners could doom the plan as well.

Gardner said a survey done for the freeholder process showed that 73 percent of county residents favored the initiative/referendum process, 58 percent said the plan for five commissioners is good, and over half wanted county officials to be non-partisan.

Gardner said opposition to the non-partisan plan from Democrat and Republican parties in other counties caused the Clark County committee to drop the idea.

Burton said he opposes the draft charter because of the cost of two more commissioners, and because it doesn't make government any more responsive to the people.

Burton had urged the freeholders to consider his suggestion for a citizen tribunal to hear land use issues, relieving some of the commissioner workload. He was critical of the freeholders for not considering his suggestion.

Burton accused Gardner of having the five commissioner idea from the beginning and not listening to alternative ideas. He said the Freeholders never considered his idea for a citizen tribunal.

Gardner said Home Rule charter would give county residents more control over local issues.

Gardner said all 21 freeholders brought something important to the table.

Another survey

Those attending one of the six public meetings on the draft plan will be asked to complete a one-page survey, asking people about their satisfaction with current county government, their opinions on the major elements of the proposed plan.

Burton said the survey, as drafted, does not ask for citizen response to the cost of added commissioners.

Copies available

Copies of the draft plan are available at city halls, public libraries, the sheriff's offices in Brush Prairie and near the fairgrounds in Ridgefield, in the county courthouse, and on the county's web site:

Citizens can also call 397-2232 to have materials mailed to them.

One public meeting on the draft plan is set for Thurs., March 21, 7-8:30 p.m., at Fire District 11, Dollars Corner, 21609 NE 72nd Ave., Battle Ground. Information, Don Gardner, 687-4738.

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