The people of Lewis County are considering whether to elect freeholders and start the home rule charter process to reorganize county government. A county charter is essentially a county-level “constitution” that changes the form of county government from the “default” form to one that is custom-designed by the charter writers and approved by the voters. I have a somewhat unique perspective on this, and would like to share my experience and comment on the process.
I’ve lived in Chehalis for the last three years, and prior to that I grew up in Centralia. But back in 2013 I was still living in Ridgefield, a suburb of Vancouver in Clark County. During a tumultuous period in county government there, the issue of starting the home rule charter process was brought up. The county commission (with a Republican majority) voted unanimously to start the charter process and elect 15 freeholders in the November general election. Community interest was high, with 125 people running for those 15 elected positions. I ran for one of those seats against 10 other opponents and won by a margin of just 46 votes out of 25,867 cast, earning me the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Landslide Randy.”
The group of 15 freeholders was, as our state’s founding fathers had intended, a very diverse lot. Picture a 21st century version of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, if the framers of the Constitution were eating pizza and drafting text on their iPads.
A board of freeholders is purposely designed to be large so that no one loud, dominant personality dominates the discussions. We had very partisan Republicans and Democrats, along with independents and nonpartisans like myself. We had former and current state senators and representatives, mayors, a retired county commissioner and sheriff, and plenty of regular private citizens too. At our first meeting, we selected a chair, vice chair and secretary, and we began to schedule our meetings and grapple with the workload. Former mayor of Camas Nan Henriksen was selected to chair the group specifically for her calm, patient and problem-solving demeanor as well as her ability to deftly herd cats.
It was decided that, to accommodate everyone’s schedules, we would meet about every other Saturday. Meetings took most of the day, and each week we would tackle a different subject. At the very beginning of the
process, we took some votes on the kinds of issues we wanted to address in the charter, and we started with the issues that got the most votes.
Our group met for about five months. Once it became clear that no single political party or interest group could dominate the process, individuals began working together with the common interest of improving our system of local government. We decided to keep it simple, as much of the early feedback we received said that too many changes and complications would alienate and confuse voters and they would not vote to adopt the charter.
Our final charter instituted just three important changes:
• The County Commission went from three to five members, with four commissioners elected by districts and a chair elected county-wide. The name changed from “commission” to “council.” Also, we cut their pay in half.
• We added the power of people’s initiative and referendum. If voters wanted to see a change in county law, they could gather signatures and force a vote, just like you already can with state laws.
• We mandated the creation of the position of county manager who can be hired and fired by the county council. This person is a professional manager who handles the day to day operations of the agency based on the policies and direction of the county council.
This charter was a result of compromise and thoughtful debate and discussion by a diverse group of people who shared one desire — to create a county system of government that was better and worked for the taxpayers of the county.
Did the final charter have everything that everyone wanted? Certainly not. Personally, I would’ve liked to have also done the following:
• Made some of the elected positions nonpartisan. Is there really a Republican or Democrat way to be clerk, assessor or treasurer? Or better yet, let’s just eliminate a layer of expensive bureaucracy and eliminate those positions entirely and have the county council hire a qualified professional.
• Instituted term limits on county commissioners. “Career” politicians tend to forget who they serve.
But in the end, my views failed to convince most of the freeholders and they didn’t find their way into the final product. That charter went to the ballot, the voters of Clark County passed it and the new system was adopted. Was that charter perfect, and did it solve all the issues with county government? No. But it was a huge step forward, and the result is a better system that is more responsive to the voters and more “small d” democratic.
I’m convinced that the home rule charter process is beneficial and can result in the creation of a system of government that is more streamlined and more responsive to the people. If done right, you can eliminate bureaucracy and make government more efficient. We should start the charter process, elect the freeholders and see what they come up with. I have faith that the people of Lewis County, regardless of background or ideology, will come up with a lean, mean, efficient government machine that gets the job done right.
We’re tired of the status quo and we know that, if given a fresh start, we can build something that works better.
Randy Mueller is a resident of Chehalis.