Consent of the Governed
Wednesday, September 5, 2018
CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED: “All political power is inherent in the people,” the Washington Constitution opens bluntly and gloriously. “And governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
With this plainly in mind, Skagit County this fall faces a decision to dramatically transform its county government as a campaign to adopt a home rule charter kicks off this week in Burlington.
Most counties in Washington—including Skagit—adhere to the traditional form outlined in the state’s constitution, where a governing board of three commissioners oversee both the administrative and legislative functions of county government. Of Washington’s 39 counties, 32 currently operate under the commission form of government provided by state law.
The growing complexity of county operations in tandem with population increases prompted state lawmakers in 1948 to provide a mechanism by which counties could adopt “home rule” charters to shape their own form of government different from the commission form prescribed by state law. Eight counties in Western Washington support home rule charters, including Whatcom County, which adopted the form in 1979.
Home rule charters can provide for a variety of county officers deemed necessary to perform county functions, but they cannot affect the election of the prosecuting attorney and sheriff, the county superintendent of schools, the judges of the superior court, and the jurisdiction of the courts. As outlined in the constitution, the charter process involves electing a group of 15 to 25 freeholders who are responsible for developing a proposed charter that is then voted on in a general election.
What form might Skagit take?
It’s an exciting question.
In August, supporters of Home Rule Skagit submitted more than 3,300 certified signatures to seated county commissioners with a request to place the question to county voters in November. Commissioners approved the effort, which will appear on the ballot together with the names of citizens volunteering to be freeholders (delegates). Twenty-one freeholders will be elected—seven from each commission district—if approved by voters.
“The charter is like a constitution for the county,” explained Christie Stewart Stein, a representative of the Home Rule Skagit effort. Home Rule Skagit is a group of nonpartisan county residents seeking to update county government. If Skagit County voters approve the measure, then the chosen freeholders will draft a charter for voters’ consideration at a later election, probably in November 2019.
“Our efforts to get the charter on the ballot have brought us into conversation with thousands of people in the community who would like to see this change happen,” notes Kathleen Kuba of the Home Rule Skagit Steering Committee.
According to county election officials, the measure will appear as a “twofold question” on the ballot. The first part of the ballot measure will ask whether a charter should be prepared by a board of freeholders. The second part will select freeholders.
“Regardless of whether a voter answers yes or no to the first question, they can still vote for freeholders,” Kuba explained. “Voters will vote only for the seven freeholders in their district. If a majority of voters vote yes to the first question, the elected freeholders will meet and draft a proposal for a new form of county government. This proposal will come back to the voters for consideration at a later date. No change occurs to county government unless voters approve the freeholders’ proposal.”
Without prejudicing a marvelous effort by citizens to shape the government that represents them, the Gristle will observe that the traditional form of three commissioners has historically served Skagit County well—much better than the initial form served Whatcom, where (in a pattern by now all-too-familiar) two commissioners representing rural fiefdoms would frequently gang up on the one representing the urban population center of Bellingham over issues of growth and development. Skagit has a much more unified sense of purpose in the protection of agriculture and resource land.
Home rule governments in Washington take two general forms—elected legislators with an appointed administrator; or elected legislators with an independent executive branch also elected by county voters. Home rule charters can also support a variety of additional independently elected officials, such as a treasurer to manage finances and an auditor to manage licenses and elections.
Importantly, a charter also determines how and under what procedure a county is referendable—that is, the rights of future citizens to amend their charter by initiative to suit their changing needs.
Whatcom County might be taken as a cautionary consideration of home rule forms Skagit might adopt.
An independent executive branch certainly provides braking power through veto for legislative overreach, and a more formalized set of checks and balances on county operations; however, a surfeit of independently elected department heads can make cohesive, coherent county policy challenging. Whatcom’s novel requirement that opens the charter for periodic review every decade, while originally intended to allow the county’s constitution to be updated consistent with evolving state law, has become in recent cycles more of a sally port for political monkeyshines like gerrymandering.
“We envision a larger part-time county council with seven to nine members, with a full-time professional county administrator appointed by the council,” Home Rule Skagit sponsors suggest. “The reason for a hired professional administrator (instead of an elected executive) is twofold—to take the politics out of the day-to-day business of running government, and because the county needs professional management at the highest level.”
It’s an exciting proposal, and another vital matter in front of voters this November.