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Winds shift on district-only elections

A move to district-only elections for some county offices may be losing traction, as those drafting a new Kitsap charter consider compromises or simply putting the issue to voters.

A straw poll Tuesday among freeholders working on the draft charter showed support for district-only elections for an expanded county council – an issue that has left the group bitterly divided – has eroded to as few as 10 members on the 21-person board.

“It’s a close split, without a doubt,” said Andy Maron, one of two freeholders representing Bainbridge Island. “But a number of those (who voted) would prefer to put it to the voters. Thus the potential for a compromise.”

Kitsap voters approved formation of the board of freeholders a year ago, to draft a “charter” that would reorganize county government.

Freeholders have reached general consensus on moving from the three-person county commission to a five-person county council.

But as many as 13 freeholders – some of them saying Bainbridge voters wield too much influence over county elections – have sought to make council elections “by district” only, in both the primary and general elections.

Opponents of that proposal say it would leave the county split into factions, and would effectively disinfranchise voters; instead of voting for all three commissioners in the general election, voters would select just one member on a five-person board.

The freeholders have only a few meetings left to resolve outstanding issues on the charter, which they hope to put before voters next February.

Tuesday’s straw-vote on the elections issue saw nine votes in favor of district-only balloting, eight for continued county-wide elections. Three freeholders were absent, and one touting a compromise abstained from the vote; three of the four, though, are said to favor continued county-wide elections.

The vote also showed a split along geographic lines, with support for continued county-wide elections among most North Kitsap freeholders, and those backing a change to district-only elections generally from South Kitsap. Freeholders from Central Kitsap were split.

Freeholder Matt Ryan said his informal polling at the Winslow ferry terminal and elsewhere has found support for district-only elections on Bainbridge.

“I believe Bainbridge Island will vote two-thirds, at least, for by-district,” said Ryan, an Illahee resident. “I’m not worried about how we approach this, so long as we get people elected by district.”

Maron disagreed.

“That just proves that the survey is not valid,” he said. “Bainbridge Island voters I’ve talked to – and I think I know them well – are against this.”

Maron noted that the vote even to consider charter government failed on Bainbridge, garnering only 46 percent support on the island compared to 53 percent countywide.

Freeholder DeWayne Boyd of Bremerton said if it’s true that Bainbridge voters wield too much sway in county elections, then Bainbridge voters also have the power to kill the charter.

“If we’ve alienated Bainbridge Island, then we’re sunk,” Boyd said. “So I think we need to come up with some alternatives in order to save this.”

Some on the board have suggested putting a two- or three-part question before voters – yes or no on the charter itself, and then selecting between the options for elections and perhaps settling other issues of contention.

“It’s a great compromise,” said freeholder Marcus Hoffman of Silverdale. “It allows us to come out with a charter with all the things we want ... and put the one issue that we have trouble with to the voters.”

But others said that in so doing, the freeholders would be abdicating their charge to craft the charter document, or could make the choice too confusing. Voters, Central Kitsap freeholder Rob MacDermid said, “are not going to vote for something unless they know what they’re getting.”

Getting more serious discussion now is the so-called “3-2 compromise.”

Under that proposal, which has been backed by Maron and Bainbridge’s other freeholder, George McKinney, three of the five county council members would be elected by district only, in both the primary and general elections. The other two would be at-large positions, to be voted on countywide in both the primary and general elections.

That would give every voter a chance to select a majority of the county council.

“I think the 3-2 plan is a good compromise,” McKinney said Friday, “because it gives everybody something.”

The board does seem to have reached consensus on some issues. In another straw vote Tuesday, freeholders voted overwhelmingly in favor of nonpartisan council positions.

Though the vote doesn’t officially change any language in the proposed charter, the freeholders appear ready to reverse an earlier decision to keep partisan elections for county council members.

Shaping up as a third issue of contention is whether the county executive should be elected or appointed.

The freeholders plan to take testimony on possible ballot options at their next meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 11, at Island Lake Community Center near Silverdale.

Final votes on the charter are expected at a meeting slated for 8:30 a.m. Oct. 13, at the Givens Center in Port Orchard.

“They said, be prepared to meet all day long,” McKinney said, “so the goal is to hammer it out.”

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