The Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce is launching an effort to fix what it says is a broken system of Lewis County management by initiating the home rule charter process, which would allow freeholders to restructure county government.
The two goals of the proposed home rule charter are to increase the number of elected commissioners from three to five while greatly reducing their pay. It would also add a professional manager to oversee day-to-day operations.
Lewis County’s three commissioners currently make more than $100,000 each in salaries and benefits, while the five proposed commissioners would only be paid $1,000 each month plus benefits. The county would pay a manager an annual salary of $150,000, plus benefits. The change would lead to $165,000 in savings for the county, Chamber leaders said during a meeting with The Chronicle Editorial Board Wednesday.
Current commissioners would be able to finish out their terms with their current salary. At the end of their terms, and if they are re-elected, they would then receive the lower salary.
The campaign, titled “One Lewis County,” seeks to put the recommendations and a proposed timeline for the home rule charter form of government in front of voters.
“The citizens deserve to have a voice,” Alicia Bull, executive director of the Chamber, told The Chronicle. “People are crying out for change.”
The home rule charter would provide better representation, professional management and more transparency, Bull said.
Todd Chaput, Chamber board president, said the change would expand the potential of the electoral pool and would allow people to keep their full-time jobs. While a panel appointed by the commissioners recently suggested the hiring of a county manager, Chaput noted such a plan would require more deficit spending after a year in which the commissioners used $1.9 million in reserves to balance the budget.
“With a council they would be able to function as that goal-setting high level ‘what’s the future of the county?’ while daily operations can be handled by a professional, and it would truly represent what most people expect the commissioners to do,” he said.
There are two ways to get a home rule charter on the ballot. Either the commissioners themselves can pass a resolution to do so, or signatures can be collected. To place the freeholder election on the ballot, the first step of the process, at least 10 percent of voters who participated in the preceding general election must sign a petition.
For Lewis County, that means 2,500 signatures are required, but One Lewis County is striving for 3,500 in case some of those signatures are deemed invalid.
Voters must agree to start the process by electing freeholders who are tasked with developing an alternative form of government. Anywhere from 15 to 25 freeholders can be elected to draft the proposed charter, which would also later go before the people for a vote.
One Lewis County is recommending 15 freeholders, five for each of the three commissioner districts. The vote to start the home rule process and the freeholder election is tentatively scheduled to be on the February 2018 ballot.
From that point forward, freeholders would draft a proposed charter and then in June would begin to educate and campaign for the charter adoption. The proposed timeline to place the charter on the ballot is August 2018.
The campaign launched today after months of meetings between Chamber members. Those gatherings began prior to the commissioners’ appointment of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, which also looked at ways to make county government run more efficiently. The task force ultimately did not recommend a home rule charter, but did ask commissioners to hire a county manager by the beginning of 2018.
During meetings with the task force, department heads and other elected officials overwhelming supported hiring a county manager.
Although Bull said those involved in One Lewis County appreciate the task force’s work, she said the plan did not go far enough.
“We’re going that next step,” she said.
The Chamber created a goverment action committee with Coralee Taylor at the helm. It consists of individuals from the Chamber’s executive team. Everyone on the committee is a Chamber member.
The task force’s recommendation to not pursue the home rule charter was deemed unsatisfactory by the group because the approach was not budget neutral, it did not increase representation around the county, the voters did not have a say in the process and the issue of having three highly-paid commissioners remains.
Since a quorum of the three commissioners consist of two individuals, Bull said they are not able to discuss important county matters without holding a public meeting.
“It’s very important to let them communicate together at some level,” she said, adding that the new form of government would allow them to do that.
The government action committee has created a political action committee. The Chamber deposited $15,000 into the account to start the campaign, but Bull said it will take more than that. None of the money comes from Chamber dues, she said.
The need to change the form of government came from Chamber members, Bull said.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t have someone approach me with concerns in regards to our county government and how it is being run,” she said in a statement. “Our members have concerns about the lack of leadership and decisions coming from the county commissioners.”
She told The Chronicle the members have brought up myriad concerns. Some of those highlighted by One Lewis County include poor fiscal management — using $1.9 million in reserves to balance the 2017 budget, continued lawsuits, lack of leadership vision and incompetent management.
If a home rule charter was successful, citizens would also have the opportunity to get initiatives on the ballot.
Randy Mueller, CEO of the Port of Chehalis and a former freeholder in Clark County, said that although the timeline proposed is ambitious, he said he supports the efforts to change the county’s structure. With first-hand experience of the process, he has previously urged the county and the Blue Ribbon Task Force to kick-start the process.
“I love the home rule charter process,” he said. “It’s a very democratic process where people can design their government.”
During freeholder elections in Clark County in 2013, over 120 individuals ran for the freeholder positions. The 15 elected individuals then met from approximately January to June of 2014 to establish the new form of government, which had to be approved by a majority vote before being placed on the ballot.
Mueller did not expect that many people to run for freeholder positions in Lewis County, mainly because of the difference in population.
Clark County is the most recent county to change to the home rule charter form type of government. Prior to the change, three unsuccessful attempts were launched. Studies show it typically takes several times on the ballot in order to be successful, but Bull said with the thoughtful planning of recommendations, and building on the Blue Ribbon Task Force’s work and recommendation, Lewis County’s home rule charter could pass in one try.
“I think we need to go back to more of a playground instead of a battleground,” Bull said, adding people have been made aware of issues that span the gamut from ineffective management of the 911 center to the defunding of senior centers. “How can we quit tossing grenades and start playing some ring around the rosie together? I don’t know, but I think removing politics will help with that and having a professional county manager allows us to have someone in there who is doing things for the right reasons.”
Talks about changing the form of county government informally started when a group of individuals began meeting to discuss the issue after a year in the commissioners office that has been plagued with problems. A lawsuit was filed against the county for violating the Open Public Meetings Act, the 911 communications center was short staffed, and commissioners announced they would no longer fund the senior centers at the start of 2018. As commissioners look to adopt a structurally balanced budget for 2018, after years of relying on reserves, more cuts to services are possible.