Clark County, WA: Home Rule Charter goes down to the wire

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

By ERIN MIDDLEWOOD, Columbian staff writer

Clark County, WA - Whether Clark County will have a new constitution remained a question Tuesday night.

A shade more than 50 percent of voters said "yes" to a proposed home rule charter. But the race was too close to call with a mere 56-vote spread with late mail-in votes still to be counted.

Clark may yet be the first county in 20 years to make the switch to home rule, which allows county government to differ from what's outlined in state law.

The proposed charter doesn't make any drastic changes but provides a way to make changes in the future. Voters said they would like to elect commissioners by district instead of countywide, but the charter itself has to pass for that change to take effect.

"We'll have to wait and see," said Michael Thomson, one of the 21 freeholders elected in 2000 to draft the charter. "I'm surprised it's that close. We didn't mount a campaign. My feeling was that it would be difficult to pass."

The freeholders, who met 37 times over a year-and-a-half, spent about $58,300 on developing and explaining the charter.

Carrie Parks, a ex-freeholder who campaigned against the charter, expected its clear defeat.

"I hope people recognize they're opening a pandora's box," she said.

Freeholders kept their proposal simple in hopes of making it more palatable, which may explain voters' ambivalence.

The bare-bones charter would change nothing, except to make further change possible in the future through a review process. The ballot offered menu options for initiative and referendum, expansion of the board of three commissioners to five, and election of commissioners by district. Voters 58 percent of them clearly want to elect commissioners by district, but rejected the other changes.

"This surprised me," Parks said. "It's a response to rural people wanting a voice."

Commissioners currently run in their district in the primary and countywide in the general election. Only if the charter passes would commissioners be elected by district. Parks and other charter opponents had argued that it would increase factionalism, but some rural home rule supporters felt it would make one commissioner more directly accountable to them.

If the home rule measure clears the 50 percent mark, a 15-member nonpartisan board would review the charter within two to five years and every 10 years thereafter. Voters would be able to submit charter changes by collecting signatures. Commissioners also would be able to propose charter changes for voter approval.

If voters give a nod to the charter, it would be a departure. County voters nixed an effort to write a city-county charter in 1982. In 1997, they rejected a bid to launch the home rule process, which commissioners revived three years later by putting freeholder elections on the ballot.

Erin Middlewood covers Clark County government. Reach her at 360-759-8031, or by e-mail at erin.middlewood@


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