The Gristle

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.

Past Columns
Too Little, Too Late

September 19, 2018

Open Secret Disclosed

September 12, 2018

Let the People Decide

August 29, 2018

3-in-1 Oil

August 22, 2018

A Deeper Dive

August 15, 2018

Blue Wave Stalls Offshore

August 8, 2018

Mountains of Our Efforts

August 1, 2018


July 25, 2018

Trust Is Reciprocal

July 18, 2018

Pressure in the Bottle

July 11, 2018

Sharing the Pain

July 4, 2018

A Supreme Shifting

June 27, 2018

The Costs of Failure

June 6, 2018

Thumb on the Scales

May 30, 2018

Bungle in the Jungle?

May 23, 2018

Heating Up

May 16, 2018

Home Run

May 9, 2018

State of the County

May 2, 2018

Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Vendovi Tours

10:00am|Vendovi Island

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

La Cage Aux Folles

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

The Wind in the Willows

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Brunch on the Bay

10:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Edison Farmers Market

10:00am|Edison Granary

Banned Books Week


Langar in Lynden

11:00am|Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Brunch and Learn

11:00am|Ciao Thyme

Your Vote Counts! Block Party

12:00pm|Depot Market Square

Audubon at the Museum

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

South Side Stories

2:00pm|Historic Fairhaven

Trivia Time

3:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Waiting for the Whales

4:00pm|Village Books

Not-Creepy Gathering for People Who Are Single

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Moon Walk


Village Books
Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Vendovi Tours

10:00am|Vendovi Island

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Banned Books Week


Baker Lake Cleanup Signup Deadline

8:00am|Baker Lake

Wheelchair Gangball

3:30pm|Bloedel Donovan

Monday Night Pizza

5:30pm|Ciao Thyme Commons

Books on Tap

6:30pm|El Agave 2

Open Mic Night

7:00pm|Village Books


9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

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Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Banned Books Week


Rainbow Reads Book Club

3:00pm| Ferndale Library

All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

Bellingham Reads

6:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Seabird Struggles

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Beginning Square Dance Lessons

7:00pm|Ten Mile Grange

Warlbers and Woodpeckers

7:00pm|Village Books

Comedy Open Mic


see our complete calendar »

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