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A Brief History of the Development and Passage of Clark County's Home Rule Charter


April 29, 2015 by Nan Henriksen and Steve Foster
Category: Forms of Government-County

A Brief History of the Development and Passage of Clark County

Image: The Clark County Board of Freeholders.

At the beginning of 2015, Clark County became Washington's seventh county to adopt a home rule charter. The charter transitioned Clark County's form of government from a traditional commission form to a “council-manager” form, replaced the three-person commission with a five-member council, and provided citizens with the powers of initiative and referendum. The process of adopting a home rule charter was years in the making, including several failed attempts. But in the end, after a diligent process of developing a solid charter, voters approved what they believe to be a stronger, more effective form of government for the county. The following is a brief summary of how Clark County’s citizens developed and passed a home rule charter in the 2014 general election.

History

Former Attempts

There have been three unsuccessful attempts to establish home rule in Clark County prior to the 2014 effort. In 1982, voters rejected a referendum to approve election of Freeholders for a city-county consolidation effort. In 1997, Clark County voters rejected a referendum to approve election of Freeholders for a county charter.

In 2000, the Clark County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) referred election of freeholders to the electorate and 21 freeholders were elected. This group proposed a charter which was subsequently placed on the 2002 general election ballot. In addition to putting forth the general question of whether a home rule charter should be adopted, voters were asked to consider separately three alternative elements of the charter, if it passed:  

1. Increase board of county commissioners from three to five.

2. Include in the charter the powers of referendum and initiative.

3. Have commissioners elected by district only.

The general proposition regarding the charter failed by a very slight margin, just 187 votes. Election by district was the only sub-element of the proposed charter which passed.

Impetus for the 2014 effort

In May of 2013, the BOCC began a series of actions which generated considerable community interest and opposition. Key among them was the controversial termination and replacemenet of a county department head. That, along with other actions over the course of the following months and into early 2014, produced a growing community interest.  Initial momentum was pointed toward recall but proponents recognized that the legal standard of “malfeasance” would be extremely difficult to sustain.  

The most popular secondary strategies were centered around home rule, with particular attention to increasing the size of the BOCC to counter the current two-person majority requirement. Early planners were also very interested in the concept of separation of legislative and executive authority as well as an elected rather than appointed executive, thereby adding a system of checks and balances.

In the spring of 2013, as the interest in home rule was gaining traction, one of the three sitting commissioners proposed another run at home rule but with only the narrow interest of adding initiative and referendum. All three commissioners supported the action and a Freeholder election process began.

The Process

Freeholder Elections

Planning commenced for an election in November to select the 15 freeholders to begin work on a charter. Unlike earlier home rule efforts, the high level of community interest and activism brought out 125 candidates. There were to be five freeholder positions for each of the three commissioner districts and candidates were asked to file for individual positions, numbered one to five in each of the districts.  (This was instead of a process where all candidates from within a district competed together with the top five vote getters being chosen.)

The slate of freeholder candidates was very diverse in terms of political or professional background, party affiliation and prior political undertakings. At least in the candidate pool, there were many who might qualify for the label “average citizen.” Freeholder campaigns showed the same diversity in spending and prominence of campaign materials. There were a series of community forums and printed profiles of the candidates as well as the usual complement of signs and printed campaign materials, along with profiles in the ballot pamphlet. In most cases the old political rule of name recognition carried the day in the elections. While there were a few people elected to the board who had not served in an elected position, most were current or former local leaders.

Board of Freeholders

The elected board consisted of 15 freeholders.

Val Ogden former state legislator
Nan Henriksen former city mayor
Jim Mains private citizen
Liz Pikeq current state legislator
Garry Lucas county sheriff
Marc Boldt former county commissioner
Pat Jollata former city councilmember
Temple Lentz private citizen
Tracy Wilson private citizen
Jim Moeller current state legislator
Paul Dennis former city mayor
Randy Mueller Port of Ridgefield employee
Peter Silliman private citizen
Joe Zarelli former state legislator
Ann Rivers current state legislator

By tradition, the freeholder candidate with the most votes in the election was deemed the interim chairperson and a tentative schedule of meetings was developed. Once formed, the board selected a slate of officers: Nan Henriksen, chair, Joe Zarelli, vice chair, and Val Ogden, secretary. The three officers also functioned as the executive committee.

The board was assisted in their undertakings with support from Clark County staff; these included Kelly Sills from the county administrator’s office, who had provided staff support to earlier home rule efforts, an attorney from the civil division of the county prosecutor’s Oofice, and a staffer from the public information office.

Input was solicited from all current Clark County elected officials through personal interviews with the freeholder chair, written survey instruments, and presentations at freeholder meetings.

Charter Writing Process

The board of freeholders met 13 times over the course of a seven-month period, with meetings generally running approximately two hours. Meetings were held in various locations around the county but in facilities that were suitable for coverage and live broadcast by the local government cable station. Each meeting included opportunity for citizen input through public comment at the beginning and end, but not during the discussions.

At the first meeting all of the freeholders received binders filled with background information: copies of charters of all other charter counties in Washington State, background information on Clark County's current county government structure, comparison charts showing features included in other charters, information on how to work legally under Washington State law, etc. In addition, early meetings included extensive education and information gathering -- learning about home rule in Washington, components of other county’s charters and experiences, presentation on the “theory” of government authority and organization, etc.

The board’s initial action was to agree on a set of stringent ground rules that would ensure a civil, respectful and thoughtful process. Next, the board agreed on core priorities, or “elements,” of the charter that should be addressed and potentially included, in order of priority:

  1. Separate executive and legislative branches of county government and the related discussion of whether executive authority should be vested in an elected executive or appointed manager.
  2. Increase the number of commissioners or county councilmembers from three to five or perhaps more.
  3. Elect commissioners or county councilmembers by district or at-large.
  4. Establish the powers of initiative and referendum.

The ranking process was primarily done by written survey input from each freeholder, but typically subject to modification or reordering through discussion at meetings.

As expected, there were other topics “on the table,” such as whether certain other local elected officials should be appointed and which positions might be considered non-partisan. However, as all freeholders recognized and agreed, a charter with too much complexity or too many changes would be more difficult to present and sell to voters. There was near, if not unanimous, support for a keep-it-simple goal.

From there, the board began a process of tackling the core elements in priority order. The decision making process primarily involved round-the-table comments to discern members leanings, and straw votes on options that seemed to have the most support. Observers and members of the board have frequently noted over the length of the process that, despite the wide variations in age, gender, background and political leanings, the discussions were free-flowing, respectful, and informative for all. D’s and R’s often found themselves on the same page even though they may have been apart earlier in the conversation. Many freeholders ended the process agreeing to a different model on certain charter elements than they had favored on the front end.

Between meetings with staff and legal support, the executive committee would undertake the task of putting in writing draft charter language, incorporating the broad, or “in principle,” tentative agreements reached in the previous meeting. The draft language produced would then be approved, again tentatively, at the subsequent meeting. It was acknowledged throughout that any agreement reached was subject to later agreement on the full draft charter. In fact, a number of tentatively agreed provisions were later replaced with a different choice.

Core Elements of Approved Charter

Over the course of the next five months the freeholders reached agreement on the core elements of the charter and the ancillary provisions. Not all decisions were unanimous, but the result of the free and civil exchange of information during the meetings enabled a clear consensus on the critical components. Highlights of those decisions and the background of each follows.

Separate Legislative and Executive Branches

As with other general law counties, the BOCC held authority over both legislative and executive authority. Separation of this authority was the top priority of the board and the freeholders agreed to confine the board authority to legislative matters. This was accomplished by delineating specific powers of the executive, now named the county manager, and establishing provisions to preclude involvement of the commissioners, now called councilors, in administrative matters. This language became known as the firewall.

The board further agreed to reduce the salaries of the councilors (with a staggered transition over several years) to $53,000 per year to promote (but not require) the concept of “citizen legislators.” Future salary adjustments were tied to salaries for state representatives. This decision was further supported by the strong sense that the fiscal impact of the new charter had to be at least neutral and, as is discussed in the next section, the size of the council was going to be increased to at least five members.

Considerable attention was paid during the freeholder campaign and later board discussion to the issue of whether the executive should be elected or appointed by the board, now called the county council. Strong arguments were presented in favor of a truly separate and equal elected executive versus a manager who would report to, and could be terminated by, the council. In the end, the board agreed that the job required the expertise of an experienced, professional administrator and opted to include provisions in the charter to ensure that would be the case. That decision was supported in part by the inclusion on the council of an at-large chairperson as discussed in the next section. It was acknowledged that the manager would have a contract governing their employment, however it would be an at-will contract and that the contract terms, hiring, and termination would require three votes.

Change in County Council

From the beginning, it was clear that there was going to be agreement on increasing the size of the council from its current three members. Many of the perceived bad decisions were enabled by the fact that with a three-member board, any two members can take control. There was also recognition that any off-line conversation involving two members was a quorum and subjected the conversation to the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act. Freeholders noted that other jurisdictions had elected more than five-member councils, there was little support for increasing the board/council to seven members or more.

Under the current, general law provisions, county commissioners ran by district during the primary elections but were elected at large, countywide during the general election. From the outset, the majority of the freeholders were supportive of election by district in both the primary and the general election. Election by district was also supported by the current county commissioners and was the only element of the 2002 charter favored by the voters. Each of the current county districts has a distinct demographic and there was strong support for an election process that would give each district a voice in how it is governed. At the same time, there was support for leaders who had a countywide perspective and would be able to promote policies and programs that would serve the entire county.

From these discussions, along with consideration of an elected county executive, emerged what was called the “hybrid:” four councilors elected by district, one member elected countywide and designated the chair. (Currently the position of chair rotates annually among the three commissioners.) The chair was to be empowered to chair the council meetings, represent the county with other jurisdictions and the state, sign documents on behalf of the council and other duties as assigned. For these additional responsibilities the salary of the chair was set at 20% above the rate for other councilmembers.

Initiative and Referendum

With some attention to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, the freeholders easily supported adding provisions of initiative and referendum to the charter. Conversations included a great deal of attention to requirements, such as number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot, determination of subjects within and outside of the scope of intiative and referendum authority, and related matters regarding legal authority and fiscal impact.

Transition

Freeholders also expended energy and attention to creating language which would specify and facilitate the transition to the new form of government. These discussions included:

  • Conversion from three districts to four.
  • Appointment of a county manager.
  • Transition to new terms lengths for the new councilors.
  • Establishing effective dates of revised salaries for current and new office holders.

Adoption

On May 27, 2014 a supermajority of the freeholder board voted to adopt the finalized charter and the entire board adopted a resolution to send the charter to the county auditor for a vote of the citizens on November 4, 2014 ballot.  

The Campaign and Election

Between submission of the charter to the auditor and the November election, a vigorous campaign was conducted in support of passage. Supporters knew, based on past experiences with charter votes and other elections, that they were swimming against a current of general voter ambivalence, resistance to change, and lack of both knowledge and interest in home rule and county charters. At the same time, the momentum and activism which spurred the movement to create home rule carried forward into the campaign.

A committee was formed to direct the campaign, leadership positions assigned, and the “Charter Yes” campaign kicked off in June. Core elements and strategies included:

  • Abundant use of social networking, particularly Facebook, to organize efforts, recruit supporters, and raise funds.
  • Signage and literature.
  • Phone banking and doorbelling.
  • Letters to the editor.
  • Sign-waving events.
  • Presentations to groups and associations.

Additionally there were both “sponsored” and neutral community forums with pro- and anti-charter representatives presenting the key elements and their pro and con arguments.

Charter supporters emphasized certain core themes: more local control, a greater citizen voice (more councilors, smaller districts, election by district, initiative and referendum). Opponents suggested the reverse was true with power being transferred to an unelected bureaucrat (county manager), the prohibitions on council members involving themselves in administrative matters and additional costs (more councilors means more staff).  

The “Charter Yes” committee raised large sums from a few donors but most of their funding came from widespread, grassroots support. Funding for the “No” camp came primarily from a few large donors including one of the current commissioners.

After a spirited campaign, on November 4th, Clark County voters passed the charter by a comfortable margin of just over 53%.

Transition and Implementation

The new charter officially took effect on January 1, 2015. However of necessity or by law certain provisions have a delayed implementation:

  • Two current commissioners, now councilors, will serve out the two years remaining on their four-year terms and at their current salaries.
  • One newly elected councilor will serve a full four-year term from 2015 through 2018, but the salary of that position shall be reduced on January 1 2017, matching the other councilors.
  • A district shall be created on January 1, 2016 and new councilorsr elected in November 2015 to represent that district.
  • The County Chair shall be elected in November 2015 and that position created effective January 1, 2016.

About Nan Henriksen and Steve Foster

This post was co-authored by Nan Henriksen, Clark County Board of Freeholders Chair, and Steve Foster, Former Clark County HR Director. Both were closely involved in the development of Clark County’s home rule charter.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Nan Henriksen and Steve Foster

Comments

"Thanks so much, Byron, for providing this information to local governments across the state. MRSC continues to be a great resource for all of us!"

Nan Henriksen on May 1, 2015 6:15 PM

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