What is the Clark County Home Rule Charter?
The Home Rule Charter provided a change in Clark County’s governance, structure, legislative make-up and process, and conducting business. It responded to several issues that were inherent in the commission process prior to it taking effect. To address commissioner interference in staff conducting their work, it provided for a separation of powers between the Legislative branch (Councilors) and Executive Branch (management and administration). It gave citizens a voice in government decision-making by granting them the powers of initiative and referendum.
Some highlights of the Charter and how it changed county government are:
Each geographic district nominates (Primary election) and elects (General election) their own representative, while the Chair is elected countywide. Before then, although commissioners needed to reside in the district they represented, they were elected in countywide elections. This meant that someone from the east part of the county voted for who represented the northwest part of the county. Indeed, in the 2014 election, the last conducted before the Charter took effect, the election of the county commissioner to represent the district that was essentially the City of Vancouver was determined by how people voted in Battle Ground.
Click Below to view full-size district map:
The Charter separated the Legislative and Executive branches of county government, included a provision that elected councilors could not interfere with administrative and technical staff business, and clarified how a councilor could be recalled. No longer can the elected council directly appoint department managers or directors who do not have the qualifications for the position; that is now the responsibility of the County Manager, who the Council does have the authority to appoint (and fire). Council members can still interact with staff just like before the Charter; they just can’t interfere in how the staff conducts their jobs.
The Charter now gives the citizens a way to propose (Initiative) or refer to a vote (Referendum) legislation. An Initiative can be proposed and referred to the voters in a prescribed process. A Mini-Initiative is a proposal which obligates the County Council to hold a hearing on a matter; a Referendum is a referral of an ordinance passed by the County Council to the voters. Each process has specific rules and signature needs as proscribed by the Charter. Initiatives cannot be filed which repeals the Charter.
a Charter Review Commission is to be elected after the Charter is in effect for five years (hence, why we are having this election), and then every ten years after that. The Charter Review Commission, an elected, public commission, is to discuss, consider and propose changes to the Charter which are taken to the next General election.
A brief history of the Home Rule Charter
Before 2014 Clark County had twice tried to pass a Home Rule, both tried being unsuccessful. The impetus to a third attempt was driven by a series of actions by two of the then-Clark County Commissioners.
The first instance was when the Environmental Services director was forced to resign after he had launched an investigation into alleged misuse of county fund and improper purchasing by a staff friend of one of the county commissioners at that time. A second instance was the replacement appointment by two county commissioners for that Environmental Services director with a political friend who had no qualifications for what was a highly technical staff position. Finally, during 2013 and into 2014, there were numerous reports of county commissioners directing county staff to either re-prioritize their time to respond to a commissioner request, or policy direction from the commissioners which conflicted with best practices in a number of areas, including comprehensive land use planning.
At that time there were many people who wanted to recall the two county commissioners involved in these controversies. Under Washington law and practice, a recall is a challenging proposition at best, and those bringing the recall must convince a Superior Court judge that there is a legal basis for the recall, instead of just politically disagreeing with the elected officials’ actions.
A quickly-growing group of Clark County citizens took a different course of action, and requested that the county commissioners move forward with a ballot process to consider implementing a home rule charter. Up until that time, much as how Clark County conducted business was under state statutes dating back to statehood in 1889. The county commissioners agreed to move forward with this process and in late 2013 a group of 15 Freeholders was elected to consider and move forward with a ballot measure to adopt a home rule charter.
The Board of Freeholders spent the first five months of 2014 carefully crafting the Charter content and important sections. After a long and difficult campaign, the Clark County Home Rule Charter was passed in November 2014 with a 53.5% Yes vote. The Clark County Democratic Central Committee had passed a resolution to endorse the Charter, while the Clark County Republic Central Committee passed their “Resolution to Defeat the Freeholders’ Charter.” By passing with that margin, it was clear the Charter had received support from Democrats, Republicans and non-partisans throughout the county. The Charter went into effect in January 2015.
So why are we here now? The Charter contains a provision for periodic reviews, the first review being five (5) years after taking effect. The process is to elect a Charter Review Commission (for which yours truly is running to represent you) to discuss, consider and with majority vote propose ballot measure(s) to amend section(s) of the Charter in the 2021 or 2022 November General Election.
Frequently Asked Questions
Even though city councilors are responsible for laws, ordinances, public services, law enforcement and zoning within city limits, county government still is present in your everyday life. Examples include the Board of Public Health (which is comprised of the five County Councilors), Growth Management Planning, County Assessor, County Auditor and Elections Office, County Sheriff, and several other departments and functions. A portion of your property taxes goes to the County’s General Fund and public health funds.
Although the number of elected representatives increased from three to five, the Charter cut the salary of the commissioners/councilors in half, with the elected chair being paid a 20% increase over the other four councilors.
- Before the Charter, 2013-2014 Budget: the annual budget for the County Commissioners’ office before the Charter was $1,265,000, which includes the salaries and benefits for the three commissioners, the county administrator, and policy analysts. Adjusted for inflation and increases in the cost of health benefits, this equates to about $1.5 million annually in today’s dollars. The total county Pre-Charter operating budget in 2013 was about $425 million per year or about $469 million in today’s dollars, adjusting for inflation.
- After the Charter, 2020 Budget: the annual budget for the County Councilors, which includes the five (5) councilors, County Manager and a couple of information and policy analysts, in the current 2020 adopted budget is about $1.5 million. In 2020, the annual baseline operating budget is $462 million per year.
Implementing the Charter has not increased the cost of county government.
There were a number of issues over time, especially in the year leading up to the Charter election, where county commissioners were accused of improperly interfering with staff, giving favoritism, and even firing a department executive who was looking into improper taxpayer spending habits and contracting with a staff who was close friends with a county commissioner. The county commission was accused of hiring “cronies” who were not qualified for the positions in which they were hired. During the Growth Management and Comprehensive Planning effort leading up to the 2016 Comprehensive Plan Update, a county commissioner developed his own land use alternative and directed staff to proceed with that alternative, even though it was inconsistent and not compliant with state law.
The Charter and its implementing administrative rules have indeed substantially reduced, but not eliminated, these issues. The county manager now oversees all executive, management and administrative functions of the county, in other words, its everyday business. While the county manager is responsible for creating and proposing annual budgets to County Council, County Council still has the authority to legislate and adopt the budget and amendments.
There have been several concerns expressed over the last five years by county councilors that they have been limited in their daily interaction with county staff, and that they are finding instances where constituent concerns get relayed to the county manager and staff but are not addressed to their satisfaction. There are other concerns that the county manager position itself has seen less-than-stellar performance and, recently, has been a revolving door.
The Charter has done a good job of reducing interference and direct appointment of under-qualified or unqualified individuals to director and manager positions.
What are some of the issues I intend to address?
I have spent the last six years closely following and assessing the Charter, as well as educating groups on what it means for them and how it can give a voice in government decision-making that they didn’t have before.
As with any new process or program, it needs to be reviewed for performance and to be assessed on what has worked, and what needs some work.
Here are some areas that I’d like to bring to the table and discuss with my fellow Charter Review Commissioners, below.
Of course, I also want to hear from you, especially if you’ve had some issues with county government and how the Charter may be working (or not working so well).
Several of the Home Rule Charter counties in Washington State elect their county executive. In some instances, this is a partisan position. Various Charters also give the Executive veto authority over Council legislation. This was discussed at length by the Freeholders in 2014, but in the end, they decided on an appointed county manager at the time with the potential of the issue being revisited by a future Charter Review Commission after the Charter was in effect. Pros of an elected executive: provides for voters to choose an elected executive manager over county business functions, and provides veto power over legislation. Cons: unlike the current appointment process, there are only age and residency requirements for an elected executive and without specific mention in a charter, may not be the most qualified person to be the business manager of the county.
Another item discussed at length by the Freeholders in 2014 was whether the council should be partisan or non-partisan. They eventually settled on partisan as elections for county positions occurred in even numbered years where voter turnout is higher, the fact 2014 was a year for partisan elections (when the Charter was being voted on) and people tended to relate to county officials in partisan positions, and that non-partisan positions may not provide the best opportunity for voters to learn about the political positions of candidates for County Council. During the 2014 Freeholder process, I supported keeping the geographical district representatives in partisan positions, but recommended that the Chair, who represents the entire county, be a non-partisan position. The eventual decision was to leave all Council positions as partisan. This continues to be something discussed even today, especially in light of today’s partisan politics. I do want to say I am not yet sold on converting the Council positions to non-partisan but would definitely entertain a lively discussion on this.
In the first election under the new Charter in 2015, we saw all three county commissioners/councilors at that time running for Chair while they were still in their elected position. The City of Vancouver voters passed a charter amendment in 2015 that prohibits sitting councilors from running for a different council position or mayor without first stepping down from their current (incumbent) seat. For Clark County, councilors in District 2 and 4 run during the same election cycle as the Chair; this allows sitting councilors in Districts 1 and 3 to run for Chair without having to give up their seat to do so. Those of us who have run for office know what time it takes to run for a major position such as Council Chair, and the significant potential of it diverting from their time to actually conduct county business and properly represent their district. I’d like to have a good, civil discussion about proposing something similar to what the City of Vancouver’s charter now includes.
The Charter gave an important power to the people of Clark County, the direct ability to propose legislation (initiative), or oppose or refer legislation to the voters (referendum). In a case of a referendum, at least 100 valid signatures are required to put an ordinance on hold, and then starts a 120-day clock to collect enough valid signatures to put the ordinance on the ballot in the next general election.
With the timelines for the process, this has the potential to effectively block legislation for as much as a year and a half before a general election referendum. The issue with this is that there are restrictions either under the Charter or by state statute or case law as to items that could be referred to a vote. Indeed, this happened twice early after the Charter took effect, where an individual purposed wanted to thwart the ability of the county to conduct required business.
The first was an attempting to take the County’s Rules of Procedure (which is proscribed in the Charter as a required item) to a referendum. The second was to put the County’s Comprehensive Plan to a public vote. In both cases, the courts rejected these attempts as this individual did not have any legal authority or standing on which to base the referenda. These ended up delaying implementing needed legislation and costing taxpayers money for a fruitless effort. I believe we could clarify items like this in a Charter amendment so that the Charter cannot inappropriately be used as a stick at someone’s whim.
With all of the discussion and debate about systemic racism, discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, and lack of ethnic diversity among elected officials in Clark County, I’d like to discuss the possibility of a Charter Amendment to create an Office of Diversity and Inclusion. This office, with a manager appointed by the County Council, would act outward to ensure equal rights and fair treatment in business and hiring practices around the county, housing, as well as ensuring that law enforcement treats everyone equally and without brutality. This position would also attend to matters within Clark County government, works to ensure equal treatment of all people, regardless of gender identity, ethnic or cultural heritage, or the color of one’s skin.
Recently there has been a spate of news on ethics complaints being filed against county councilors. A few years ago the County Council included in the Rules of Practice a provision for filing and review of ethics complaints. The current provision calls for two county councilors to be appointed and they would select a citizen representative to chair the committee reviewing the ethics complaint. The problem is, with only four county councilors to choose from (assuming the one against whom the complaint would not be appointed to the ethics review committee), and for situations where there are simultaneous complaints against two or more councilors, there are not a lot of options for the ethics committee.
Pierce County has resolved this issue by including in their Charter a provision for an autonomous Ethics Review Commission. This Commission is charged with reviewing ethics complaints against any county employee (councilors and other countywide elected officials are considered county employees under this code, judges are not). Ethics Review Commissioners are appointed (by the County Executive and Council) and serve autonomously and are non-partisan. A hearings officer is the “gatekeeper” for complaints, to review and determine the validity and legality of the complaint (which means they can dismiss those without merit). Hearings which are Human Resources matters are held in executive session to protect the privacy of the person or persons against which the complaint has been filed.
I believe a process like this has merit and I look forward to discussing this with my fellow Charter Review Commissioners.
Why should you vote for me?
I hope you’ll find that my proven ability to listen to and discuss all sides of issues, and having friendships and acquaintances that span the political spectrum, allows you to vote for me to represent you on this important commission. I am not a career politician but I have been involved with government, and currently sit on the Commission on Aging, which gives me a unique understanding compared to all of the other candidates about how government works and ways we can improve upon things.
I also trust you’ll find that my involvement in helping craft the Home Rule Charter back in 2014, educate groups on what it means for them after the Charter took effect, and the fact I’ve continued to track and discuss with people how the Charter is working and how it can be improved will allow you to “Check Charter Chuck” on the ballot this November.