Home rule charter draws support, criticism

Issue will be decided by voters Nov. 4

Supporters of the Clark County home rule charter say it will create a more efficient form of government and strengthen citizen representation. Opponents suggest it will do quite the opposite.

Voters will have the opportunity to decide for themselves during the upcoming Nov. 4 General Election. The charter proposition requires a simple majority approval to pass.

The 15-page charter was crafted and approved by a majority of the 15 elected members of the Board of Freeholders, which met from November 2013 to May 2014.

If approved, it would implement several major changes to Clark County government.

It calls for an increase from three commissioners to five council members. Four of the council members would be elected by district in the primary and general elections to four-year terms, while the fifth would be an at-large chairperson.

The council members would be paid less than the current county commissioners. Council members would receive an annual salary of $53,000, while the chairperson would receive 20 percent more, approximately $63,600. Currently, county commissioners earn $106,000 per year.

The proposed charter limits the county council’s duties to legislative issues, while giving administrative duties to an appointed county manager. The county council would deal with budget, legislative and policy issues, and the county manager would focus on implementation of those policies and administrative issues.

The proposed charter also adds initiative and referendum powers. It calls for a periodic review and potential amendment of the charter, the first coming five years after approval and at least every decade thereafter. A charter review commission would be an elected group, and all amendments must be approved by a public vote.

Nan Henriksen, current Camas resident and former mayor, served as the Board of Freeholders’ chairwoman. She said her desire to be involved with the creation of the charter was not a reflection of the current members of the sometimes controversial Clark County Board of Commissioners.

“I went into this process with the idea, the mind-set, that we needed to come up with a structure that is better suited for the 21st century and going forward. But it had nothing to do with those in power, except that maybe some of the actions of those people put a spotlight on the inadequacies of the current form of government,” she said. “However, it could have just as well been folks from the other political party. Or it could have just as well been somebody in the middle.”

Several elements of the charter have spawned heated debate between the document’s supporters and detractors.

State Rep. Liz Pike, a Camas resident, was a member of the Board of Freeholders. She voted against putting the charter on the ballot, and maintains that the proposed system would create “more bureaucracy.” She specifically takes issue with the power that would be given to the appointed city manager.

“Everything is going to flow through one person — one soon-to-be very powerful city manager,” she said. Pike added that she worries the county’s elected officials will have less power to take action on behalf of constituents.

“The charter will make Clark County the most bureaucratic county on the West Coast,” she said. “People meet with me [as a state representative] because they are at the end of their rope. The most important thing I do is advocate for them when some bureaucratic agency is giving them the run-around.”

Henriksen disputes Pike’s assertions.

“It’s to make the system more efficient,” she said, referring to the separation of powers. “To make sure all of the citizens are equally treated in the fulfillment of county policy. [The current system is] extremely unfair to the citizens, and it costs them money in lack of efficiency.

“Instead of being this awful power grab, it simply acknowledges three CEOs plus an appointed CEO is just not a viable way to do business,” she continued. “It worked pretty well back in the 1880s when the state constitution was written. It’s not what we need 140 years later.”

According to the charter, council members are not prohibited from “referring a citizen complaint or submitting a request for information to the county manager or another elected official; submitting a request to the county manager to work with a department head to investigate a constituent issue; or requesting information or advice pertinent to the legislative deliberations and actions of the council from any officer, agent, employee, contractor or vendor subject to the direction and supervision of the county manager or other elected official.”

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey, a charter supporter, recently spoke at a Camas City Council meeting.

“[Council members] can still talk to staff. [Council members] cannot direct them to do work, and that is one issue that really needs to be clarified with the people,” he said. “The charter explicitly states that council members are able to request information from anybody. It does not in any way prohibit anyone’s free speech rights.”

On Oct. 6, the Camas City Council approved a resolution in support of the charter.

Pike said she also questions the idea of increasing the number of elected officials.

Currently, in order for discussion to take place between two commissioners (a quorum), a public meeting has to be called. Pike said the increase from three to five commissioners could lead to “deals being made behind the scenes by two commissioners.”

“The public doesn’t win in that kind of situation,” she said.

Henriksen said a larger group of elected officials makes sense as the population of Clark County has grown dramatically during the past 100 years.

“Everyone on our board agreed that we needed greater representation for the increase in population,” she said.

Regarding the charter’s power of referendum, a recent resolution from the Clark County Republican Party called it “a toothless tiger which offers no real check on power.”

Henriksen said despite the fact that referendum powers are limited by state law, the Freeholders decided to include them in response to the desires expressed by the public.

“People have been almost begging to have local power of initiative and referendum for years,” she said. “We agreed to give those powers to the people within the limitations of state law and court cases. So they have the power. If they want to take on the fireworks in the unincorporated areas, or those sorts of things, they can. If they are taking on taxes or budget items, they can’t because it’s been precluded by law.”

Despite finding fault with most aspects of the proposed charter, Pike said she was pleased with the process, saying that everyone got along well and there was vigorous debate.

However, Pike now says the six-month process was rushed, an opinion she claims she formed once the group had concluded its work. She didn’t mention it during deliberations.

“I think it was probably too rushed,” she said. “If we went slower, it probably would have been a much more perfected charter that did not have a lot of the ‘poisoned pills’ that this one does. The agenda was to hurry up and finish it. The result is that three of us had a charter that we couldn’t support.”

Henriksen said she worked to make the Freeholders’ work an open and respectful process. Participants listened to each other and worked together well, despite their diverse viewpoints.

“The whole idea is they worked together to create a custom-made governance for Clark County citizens,” she said. “Which, I think, is the American way.”