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A question of balance

Matt Ryan has experienced the pinnacle of county government political power, and it led him to this conclusion: It’s too much.

When the Brownsville resident served as a county commissioner in the mid-1990s, he said he was “as close to being a czar as you could be, and still be a United States citizen.”

Charter proponents have used the concentration of power in the hands of Kitsap’s three commissioners as an example of why county government needs reform.

Voters will decide the fate of the proposed charter, drafted by 21 elected freeholders, in a Feb. 5 all-mail election. Ballots were mailed to voters on Wednesday, Jan. 16.

The charter would replace the three-member Board of County Commissioners with a five-member council and create a county executive, who would perform duties similar to those of a city mayor.

Charter backers say the proposed change would separate the legislative, executive and quasi-judicial functions currently vested in the hands of the three commissioners.

Former freeholder Mary Ellen Madison of Poulsbo, a charter opponent, says it simply replaces three czars with one — the county executive.

Madison, a long-time League of Women Voters of Kitsap volunteer, has observed local politics for decades. She’s seen county commissioners acquire and wield what she considers too much power.

“The executive, the way things are divided, would get even more power than a commissioner,” said Madison, who cited the executive provision as her primary reason for voting against the charter when the freeholders adopted the document in October. “There’s an

old saying: Power corrupts,

and absolute power corrupts

absolutely.”

SEPARATION OF POWERS

Freeholders sought to avoid that conundrum by balancing the powers of the council and executive.

The council would be responsible for setting policy, and the executive for carrying it out. The executive would have veto power over council actions, but the votes of four council members would override the veto.

The executive would prepare the proposed county budget, but the council would have authority to change and approve it. The executive would nominate members of boards and commissions, subject to council confirmation.

“It’s called separating and balancing your power,” Port Orchard resident and former freeholder Linda Webb told a recent forum on the proposed charter. “The positive side of having an executive is, that’s a separate office. Policy making is done by the council. Carrying out that policy is the job of the executive.”

The separation of powers was modeled after the federal and state governments, but charter opponents argue the executive position is too powerful.

“The problem with it being so strong is, the council is so weak,” Christine Nasser of Bainbridge Island said at the recent forum.

APPOINTED VS. ELECTED

When they first addressed the issue, the freeholders called for a system similar to Kitsap’s current form in which the county legislative body appoints an administrator.

But in the end they opted for an executive, characterizing the switch as an attempt to separate powers.

An elected executive is independent of the council, and accountable directly to the voters.

The appointed administrator system consolidates executive authority on the county council.

Not all the freeholders agreed with the decision.

Madison preferred retaining an administrator, who would have training and experience in public policy and management.

“We don’t need a politician,” Madison said. “We have a perfectly good county administrator who’s taken some of the load off of the commissioners.”

Former freeholder Marcus Hoffman of Silverdale said an executive would be more accountable than an appointed employee.

“It makes the executive responsive to voters. ... I have a lot of confidence that the voters know the necessary qualifications for somebody to run this county,” Hoffman said.

COUNCIL-EXEC RELATIONS

Charter opponents argue the council-executive relationship would tend to be adversarial, promoting gridlock.

Nasser predicted the council would be marginalized by the executive and new powers of initiative and referendum. Charter opponent Jim Sharpe said council power would be further limited by district-only elections.

The executive would be “the only person who’s elected countywide,” said Sharpe, a Silverdale resident. “The council is elected by small districts, which means the executive is the only one with a strong mandate.”

Hoffman pointed out that separation of powers works for state and federal governments. In order to get things accomplished, the council and executive would find ways to collaborate.

“The political dynamics of Kitsap County are such that the people will work together,” Hoffman said.

Madison fears the executive would create a new bureaucracy. As a politician, Madison said, the executive would have to hire a professional manager to handle day-to-day courthouse operations.

Hoffman argues the executive could streamline government by providing a single voice to direct the courthouse.

The executive also would be the county’s chief spokesperson in dealing with the public and other counties, Hoffman said, including on regional planning.

Kitsap participates in Puget Sound regional land-use, transportation and other planning efforts with King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Kitsap is represented in those efforts by commissioners, who Hoffman said “aren’t viewed as co-equals” with executives from the other counties.

“We don’t have enough power to compete with the other counties,” Hoffman said.

“Right now we don’t have a voice. We have three voices, which say different things.”

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