Charter government for Kitsap?
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:07 PM
"Convinced that Kitsap County government is obsolete, a diverse citizen's group is asking voters for permission to start a remodel.And there is a surprising degree of agreement on what a new county government ought to look like, even among the incumbent office-holders.With the breadth of issues we face, three commissioners are not enough, said Kitsap County Commissioner Chris Endresen of Poulsbo, who represents the north end of the county and Bainbridge Island. And I think an executive and legislative branch with real separation of powers would lead to better decision-making.A group calling itself the Home Rule Committee has gathered enough signatures to put the issue of a home-rule charter for Kitsap County on the Nov. 7 general ballot.Voters will also see a slate of freeholders on that ballot. If the charter petition passes, the elected freeholders will draft a new charter for county government - essentially a local constitution - which in turn would be submitted to the voters for approval. The freeholders will be elected by commission district, with seven individuals chosen from each the north, central and south districts of the county. A total of 20 candidates have filed for the seven slots available from district one, including three Bainbridge Island residents - former city councilman Andy Maron, retired city manager Lee Walton and retired law-enforcement executive George McKinney.As one of Kitsap County's four incorporated cities, Bainbridge Island is less affected by the form of county government than the unincorporated areas. But the county does provide a number of services to Bainbridge, including social services, a jail, and some health services. And Bainbridge residents do pay a county property tax.A change in the county charter isn't as major a change to us as to other areas of the county, Mayor Dwight Sutton said. But we are part of the county, so it's not completely irrelevant either.Govt. 101Kitsap County now is subject to provisions of Washington state law that mandate the structure of county government - a structure that can be changed only by adoption of a charter.State law mandates a commissioner form of government, in which three elected commissioners perform both legislative and executive functions. That contrasts with the more familiar separation of powers at other levels of government, under which the legislative body establishes policies that the executive carries out.For example, under a separation of powers, the commissioners would budget money for road repairs, but the executive would actually call for bids, hire the contractor, and supervise the construction - all duties for which the Kitsap County Commission is now responsible.The law also specifies other offices to be filled by election, including ministerial offices such as coroner and clerk.The fact that commissioners perform both executive and legislative functions is seen as a drawback by virtually everyone involved.Of necessity, we have to be specialists in various areas of county government, said Endresen, who is running for re-election on the commission. If we had an executive officer to carry out the policies that we made, we would have better checks and balances, and better decision-making.Home Rule Committee chairman James Martin of Port Orchard points to what he perceives as an inefficiency problem in the current system.Nobody has the power to say yes, Martin said. When anything is proposed, the commissioners have to get together and vote. Another perceived problem is the size of the board. Under state law, commissions may not expand from three to five members until a county population reaches 300,000 (Kitsap County's population is now 230,000).But that threshold for expansion is too high, charter proponents say.Two people make decisions on a $50 million budget, said Harry James, treasurer of the Home Rule Committee. Most people feel that the commissioners are not easily accessible. The county has outgrown that style of government.Freeholder candidate Andy Maron of Bainbridge Island, an attorney by profession, points to another problem.Laws passed in 1971 say that any time a quorum meets, it is a public meeting, in which notice is required, minutes have to be taken, and so forth. With a three-member commission, that means no two commissioners can even talk to each other informally.Maron believes that enforced isolation hinders the smooth working of government.They can't think out loud or bounce ideas off each other, he said. In fact, they can't even get together privately and talk about misunderstandings.The proposalCounty voters will be asked on Nov. 7 whether they want to see a board of freeholders convene, to draft a charter defining the basic structure of county government. At the same time, they will be asked to actually elect freeholders.The measure that will appear on the ballot was filed under a provision of the state constitution that, in Endresen's words, allows for remodeling of county general-purpose government.Certain basics cannot be changed, nor can the charter affect governmental units other than the Kitsap County.(A separate proposal made under a different constitutional provision would have permitted much more sweeping changes, including dissolution of the existing cities and merging them into a county-wide government. That action would"