Clark County, WA: Home Rule opponents object to freeholders' brochure

Friday, November 1, 2002

By ERIN MIDDLEWOOD, Columbian staff writer

Opponents of a proposed Clark County home rule charter on Tuesday's ballot object to a brochure mailed on the taxpayers' dollar.

The freeholders who drafted the charter used county money to produce the brochure and mail it to 66,803 voters, which the prosecutor's office determined to be legal.

Elected in 2000 and charged by the county commissioners with writing a charter, the freeholders completed the task this summer. They approved the $12,403.49 brochure June 18, one of their last acts before disbanding. They also agreed to spend $6,413 on display ads. Both were within their purview of educating voters, said Don Gardner, who was the freeholders' chairman.

He said the brochure explains what a charter is "a local constitution" that "gives voters more control of the structure of county government."

It also outlines the choices offered: Voters can decide if they want the power of initiative and referendum, if they want to expand the board of three commissioners to five, and if those commissioners should be elected by district.

The brochure goes beyond an explanation, said county Treasurer Doug Lasher and former freeholder Carrie Parks, who are campaigning against the charter.

They take exception to one paragraph in particular: "The home rule charter could make government more accountable and give the public a greater role in county decisions."

"Our taxpayer money was used to do a sales job," Parks said.

She thinks the brochure should list both the pros and cons of the charter. On the negative side, Parks said, adding commissioners would be costly, electing them by district would lead to factionalism, and initiative and referendum would be disruptive.

Targeting the mailing to recent voters also crossed the line, Lasher said.

"This is definitely a political strategy rather than informing voters overall," Lasher said.

Curt Wyrick, chief deputy prosecutor, said the brochure was within the bounds of the law.

State law prohibits the use of government resources to promote ballot propositions, but the limitation applies differently to freeholders because their sole purpose is proposing a charter.

Constitutionally, they must write, propose and explain a charter.

"That's their duty," Wyrick said.

If the brochure had exhorted "vote yes," that would be a different matter, he said.

Charter supporter John Karpinski, himself an attorney, said he and his fellow freeholders were "very careful not to cross any lines between education and advocacy."

"We needed to explain what this is all about to the average voter so they could make the choice," he said. "If you compare what we send out to what legislators send out with their franking privileges, it's pretty tame."


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