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Voters Weigh in on Contentious Charter Changes and Initiatives


Last week I wrote about local funding measures and bans on fireworks, marijuana, and alcohol that appeared on Washington’s general election ballots. This week, we turn our attention to charter amendments, initiatives, and other governance changes.

For the full election results, take a look at our handy Local Ballot Measure Database. (I’ll update the percentages once the counties certify the results.)

Charter Counties Adopt District-Based Voting

Clallam and Whatcom counties both approved a switch to district-based voting, a system that has now been adopted by almost all charter counties. Of the seven home-rule counties, only San Juan County still elects all of its commissioners at-large (nominated from three residency districts).

In Clallam County, commissioners were previously nominated on a district basis but elected at-large; now all three commissioners will be elected by district. A similar change took place in Whatcom County after a fierce partisan fight, so now five councilmembers will be elected by district with two elected at-large. (Previously, six of the councilmembers were nominated from three districts, but all were elected at-large.)

Charter Counties Limit Power of Commissioners, Make Initiatives Easier

Voters in Clallam and Whatcom counties also approved a number of charter amendments that, generally speaking, reduce the power of county commissioners/councilmembers and make it easier to submit initiatives and referenda.

In Clallam County, voters approved amendments increasing the signature-gathering time for initiatives from 90 to 120 days and, once qualified, requiring initiatives and referenda to be proposed directly to the voters without prior consideration by the board of commissioners. Voters also approved an amendment requiring the charter to be reviewed every five years instead of eight. (All other charter counties require charter review at least every 10 years.)

The only charter change that failed in Clallam County – and by a large margin – was a proposal to change the director of the Department of Community Development from an elected to an appointed position. The measure, which was supported by the current director, failed with just 35% of the vote. The office has been elective since 2003, and it is believed to be the only local elected planning position in the country.

In Whatcom County, voters established term limits for the county executive and councilmembers and reduced the number of signatures needed for initiatives, referenda, and charter amendment initiatives. Voters also narrowly approved conflicting amendments limiting the ability of both the council and the charter review commission to refer future amendments to voters.

Vancouver Adds Steps to Initiative Process

Voters in Vancouver approved several charter amendments, including one that would clarify the initiative process by:

  • Establishing filing and signature deadlines;
  • Requiring the city clerk to determine the validity of the circulator statement and the city attorney to provide a nonbinding opinion on the measure’s legality;
  • Eliminating provisions that allowed proponents to gather more signatures after a petition was declared insufficient; and
  • Extending the time for referring measures to voters from 60 to 90 days.

Tacoma Rejects Charter Initiative

Tacoma voters rejected a sweeping charter amendment initiative, which – among other things – would have changed the city to a mayor-council government, reduced the size of the city council, and established stricter term limits. The initiative was widely panned for its sloppy drafting – which would have inadvertently abolished the powers of initiative and referendum, created indefinite term lengths, and left the city without a mayor or manager for several months – so it is hard to gauge voter sentiment about the actual substance of the initiative.

Larger Jurisdictions Vote on Workers Rights and Other Initiatives

Local voters decided on three initiatives in this election, all of them tied into larger national issues of wages and campaign finance, as well as one referendum on a very local issue.

In Tacoma, voters were faced with two competing proposals to increase the minimum wage and overwhelmingly chose the lower of the two: a $12 minimum wage backed by the city council and phased in by January 2018. The other proposal would have established an immediate $15 minimum wage. Tacoma joins Seattle and SeaTac in having a local minimum wage higher than the state minimum of $9.47.

Spokane voters, on the other hand, rejected a proposed worker bill of rights, which would have amended the city charter to required large employers to pay a “family wage,” along with adding other worker protections and requirements.

In Seattle, voters approved campaign contribution limits and an experimental, first-in-the-nation voucher system for campaign donations.

Meanwhile, Pierce County voters resoundingly approved a referendum rejecting a controversial new general services building, following an advisory vote in August. The building had been approved by a divided county council in February, after several years of study.

Other Changes to Governance Structures

  • Spokane County voters rejected a proposal to increase the number of commissioners from three to five.
  • Two fire districts (King County No. 28 and Thurston County No. 8) approved an increase from three to five commissioners, while King County Water District No. 1 went the other way and reduced the size of the commission from five to three. The Port of Illahee eliminated commission districts in favor of at-large voting.
  • Granite Falls changed from a mayor-council to a council-manager form of government.
  • The Tukwila Metropolitan Park District established a directly elected board. Previously, the city council served ex officio as the governing body.

Vader Rejects Name Change

Last but not least, voters in Vader shot down another attempt to change the city’s name back to Little Falls, after a similar vote failed 10 years ago. Last year, voters in Blaine also rejected a proposed name change.

Did you see anything else noteworthy? Leave a comment below or contact me directly at

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About Steve Hawley

Steve joined MRSC in July 2014 and is responsible for writing, editing, and conducting research for many of MRSC’s website resources, with a particular focus on local government finance, budgeting, ballot measures, and procurement. He has a broad communications and public policy background with over a decade of local government and nonprofit experience.