Planning chief in Clallam County to be elected, a first in the nation
Anywhere — as far as national organizations know.
This Olympic Peninsula county of 65,000 is electing its planning director.
The official title is director of community development. He'll be the county's top land-use administrator, responsible for everything from drafting growth-management plans and processing zoning changes to issuing building permits. He'll enforce restrictions on shoreline development and implement salmon-recovery agreements.
An appointed official holds the job now. That's the way it is in every other city and county in Washington and probably the nation: The National Association of Counties and the American Planning Association both say they know of no other local jurisdiction that elects its planning director.
Mike Kattermann, president of the planning association's Washington chapter, says his organization is concerned. There's no guarantee the elected director will have an appropriate professional background, he says, and "it does tend to politicize that position a lot more."
But in Clallam County, which has struggled to balance growth with protection of the forests, farms, rivers and coastlines that have drawn many newcomers, planning and growth management have been highly political for years.
Backers say electing the director of community development could actually depoliticize the office, making it more responsive to the people and less responsive to the whims of other elected officials.
Clallam County is electing its planning director, as a nonpartisan position, because voters said last November that they wanted to. They approved an amendment to the county charter — its constitution — recommended by an elected 15-member review commission.
The chairman of that commission and chief promoter of the amendment, Sequim land surveyor Dave Cummins, is a county Republican leader who says the Democratic majority on the board of county commissioners, the appointed planning director's boss, is too pro-environment and anti-growth.
"The job won't change a bit," says appointed director Bob Martin.
Not officially, perhaps. But both supporters and critics of an elected director agree that, while the winner won't write the rules, he may enjoy considerable latitude in interpreting them.
They also agree he will have more autonomy and clout at the courthouse because he will possess something Martin lacks — an independent political base.
"In Clallam County, we get 14 inches of rain (annually) on the east side and 140 inches on the west side," says Steve Tharinger, a Sequim Democrat who chairs the board of county commissioners, "and the politics here are just as diverse."
Position called "out of control"
Environmentalists, who considered the regulations too weak, filed appeals that still haven't been completely resolved. Property-rights activists, who considered the rules too restrictive, collected signatures for an initiative to repeal them, but the commissioners — and later the courts — ruled the initiative didn't belong on the ballot.
Eloise Kailin of the environmental group Protect the Peninsula's Future says the other side decided Martin was the problem. Cummins acknowledges the critical-areas fight may have some connection to the bid to make Martin's job elective.
But far more important to the review commission, he says, were citizens' stories of inconsistent and arbitrary treatment from Martin's department when they applied for permits. "This position has too much power and is out of control," Cummins wrote last October.
"So many people have been hurt by the decisions they have made," says Lois Krafsky-Perry, another review-commission member who supported electing the director. "A lot of people are unhappy."
Martin, who is running this fall to keep his job, says the review commission was dominated by property-rights conservatives who think government is too intrusive. There's no way to do his job right without upsetting people, he says: "We are often dealing with disputes between adjacent property owners. Somebody's going to be happy. Somebody's going to be unhappy."
Choosing the director at the polls is in keeping with Washington's history, says Rod Fleck, Forks city attorney and planner, who also served on the review commission: "Those offices with real or perceived power over people's lives — treasurer, assessor — were made elected. We elect more state and county officials than just about any other state."
But some Clallam County leaders don't like the idea. Vicci Rudin of Port Angeles, a retired planner who is vice president of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, says an unqualified director could get the county into serious legal trouble.
An elected director might be more likely to cater to special interests, Kailin says, ignoring planning standards and the state's Growth Management Act.
"By nature, this is probably the most regulatory department in county government," says Tharinger, the chairman of the board of county commissioners. "To politicize that, I think, is problematic."
But Cummins says the community-development department has been tailoring its enforcement of the rules for years to conform to the shifting sentiments of a majority of the county commissioners.
"Things seemed to be more relaxed when you had a more conservative point of view (among the commissioners) rather than the anti-growth point of view," he says. Electing the director "gives him the ability to stand up to the politics of the county commissioners."
The winner in November will earn $55,000 a year — about $20,000 less than Martin now makes. The county commissioners slashed the salary earlier this year.
Miller calls himself an "outspoken environmentalist." Robertsen is the best-financed of the three: Builders, contractors, Realtors and Cummins have contributed to his campaign. Ironically, all three candidates opposed making the office elective.
Cummins acknowledges Clallam County can't look elsewhere for guidance on how this experiment will work.
"I think other counties around the country are watching to see what happens here," he says.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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