Freeholders warned to avoid alienating political parties
June 11, 2008 · Updated 11:20 AM
"The Kitsap County Board of Freeholders were warned Saturday to avoid offending entrenched political interests and to avoid overreaching as they undertake a county government reform effort.A panel of Home Rule veterans from other Washington counties told the recently elected Kitsap freeholders that political parties and courthouse powers often seek to derail charter movements. And they've been successful more often than not - 11 of Washington's 16 Home Rule movements have failed, according to former Washington Association of Counties executive director Gary Lowe.I have seen elected county officials tank the charter all by themselves. It happened here, Lowe said, when courthouse officials withdrew support for a 1971 charter effort at the last moment.Dennis Weber, who chaired the Cowlitz County freeholders in 1997, said a largely conservative board hammered through far-reaching reforms, only to see a coalition led by area Democrats defeat the measure.Cowlitz County is predominantly Democrat, Weber said. Most of the electeds came out against it.Another former freeholder, however, warned against buckling under to partisans. Lois North, a member of the original King County Board of Freeholders in 1967, said her group made King County's elected government too big and too partisan.The greatest mistake King County did was to yield to the pressure of both parties, said North, who also is a former state legislator. They threatened, 'If you don't make these (elected positions) partisan, we're going to go out and defeat your charter.University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer noted that only the county prosecuting attorney is required by state law to remain a partisan position. All other elected jobs, from county commissioner to sheriff, may be made non-partisan.King County, for instance, made many previously elected positions appointed. After the new charter went into effect, only the King County council, executive, assessor and prosecuting attorney were elected (a later revision of the King County charter re-instituted an elected sheriff) and North said election of the assessor was a mistake.Lowe, who spent his 33-year career working with county governments, urged the Kitsap freeholders to work as quickly as possible. Taking too long, he said, could lead to an erosion of public support for the issue.A previous Skamania County charter effort, he said, failed when freeholders took 16 months to write their charter. Only three of the originally elected freeholders remained by the time the document was written, and they had to bring a lawsuit in order to get the measure on the ballot.Don't fix problems that aren't problems, Lowe said. And don't fix things that have nothing to do with the county. Don't spend a lot of time arguing about something that's in the federal constitution or Growth Management Act.Lowe said all 16 proposed charters - the 11 that failed and the five that passed - had a number of items in common. All dealt with representation issues, often exchanging the three-member Board of County Commissioners for a larger County Council. All separated legislative and administrative duties, usually by adding an elected or appointed county executive. All included charter review processes and all granted new powers of initiative, referendum and recall.I'm a great proponent of Home Rule ... but I've seen so many fall on their face, Lowe said. The key thing is, get Home Rule done. Once you have Home Rule, then you can have all these other things: you can have initiative, you can have referendum, you can have greater representation. "