Pol-i-tics: The Art of Influencing Others Pt 4 by John Merton Marrs

Republished from April, 2015.

Clallam County’s Charter Review Commission cannot be accused of moving too fast. The question is how far they will get in the next three months.

The biggest question discussed so far is whether to increase the size of the Board of County Commissioners. Only two other possible charter amendment proposals have taken any form yet. More are to be revealed when they meet next on April 6, 6:30 p.m. at the County Courthouse in Port Angeles.

The three topics under consideration:

1.) Whether the prosecuting attorney’s post can be made non-partisan, 2.) whether the Director of Community Development (DCD) should revert to an appointed position, and 3.) how many commissioners should serve on the County Board.

The first question is virtually moot. The majority of the CRC asked Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols to seek a formal opinion from the state’s Attorney General, which Nichols said will take three to six months. Only if a quick and favorable answer is forthcoming could the CRC deal with it before its decisive meetings, now planned for July. Otherwise, any opinion would be left for consideration by either a future CRC or for a citizens’ ballot initiative.

The second question is an old one. The last CRC eight years ago asked the voters to take the DCD off the ballot, and the voters said no by a large margin. Earlier in 2002, CRC asked the voters to make the DCD elected, and they did so by a large margin. The newest DCD, Mary Ellen Winborn, says she would vote to take her post off the ballot, but there is no evidence suggesting that the public is eager to change its mind.

As for the Board of County Commissioners, one possibility would be to leave things as they are, with three county commissioners. The next is to increase the board to five commissioners, and that begs a key question: How?

The two most likely possibilities could require the creation of five new commissioner districts or, conversely, the addition of two commissioners elected at large.

Both possibilities face obstacles — even if you discount the likelihood that the public would not such changes. Remember that the CRC does nothing more than study, consider and recommend change. Only the public can enact change via the ballot box.

If the county board were to expand with five new commissioner districts, then the CRC would have to ask the voters to also change the charter to require a special redistricting commission or else put the change on hold until the next redistricting commission is to be appointed in 2020 for action in 2021.

This might mean asking the voters to enact a two-part proposal, but one of the axioms of the ballot is that the more complicated a proposal the more likely it is to be rejected.

If the board were to be expanded to five members by simply electing two members at large, I could not recommend that change to anyone. Here’s why: It would create the possibility of the voters choosing four commissioners from Port Angeles. The county seat already had two of the three commissioners for years until Bill Peach of Forks won election last year. The possibility of electing four out of five from the same city could result in a dangerous concentration of power.

County commissioners Jim McEntire of Sequim and Peach told the CRC on March 16 that the specter of a concentration of power is something they should be concerned about.

The Board of Commissioners already serves both legislative and executive functions. The fear is that concentrated power could prevent any meaningful balance of power.

Commissioner Mike Chapman of Port Angeles in an earlier interview argued that a three-member commission provides more transparent governance than five could, because with a five-member board any two could negotiate matters in private as they would not make up a quorum of the board. With three commissioners, he said that can’t happen, because the Open Meetings Act prevents any pair from negotiating outside of a public meeting.

McEntire and Peach agreed with that point when they addressed the CRC March 16.

I’ve talked with Chapman, McEntire and Peach about this, as well as former commissioners Ron Richards and Mike Doherty. They all agree, avoiding violating the Open Meetings Act is manageable with only three commissioners. McEntire and Doherty also acknowledged the help of Board Clerk Trish Holden in reminding them of the law if she catches two of them in casual conversation.

Doherty, now a CRC member, has another idea, although I still think it faces the redistricting obstacle. He said he likes the idea of having five part-time commissioners instead of three full-time ones. That would make it possible to effect the change without increasing the budget. Doherty said it could also increase the field of prospective candidates because professionals would be able to consider running without giving up their regular employment.

How far will CRC go? Chair Norma Turner reminded her colleagues to beware of “overreach.” She suggested that placing too many issues before the voters is a recipe for failure. When a previous CRC placed too many issues on the ballot, all but one failed.

NOTES: Don Corson of Port Angeles was sworn in as a CRC member March 16, replacing Cheryl Williams of Port Angeles who resigned for personal reasons. Corson was next in line from last November’s District 3 voting after first runner-up Lee Whetham declined the appointment. Perhaps more importantly, Corson has expertise as one of the county’s two redistricting masters in 2011… Another significant issue involves the complaints of Selinda Barkhuis, county treasurer and a CRC member, regarding the Treasurer’s Office and its relationship to the County Executive’s office. I expect that she may address this issue in separate commentary in Port O Call.

John Merton Marrs, chair of the countys 2011 Redistricting Commission, is a veteran newspaper reporter and editor. He has covered politics and government in California and Alaska, as well as Clallam County.

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