Vote by district, freeholders say

Kitsap freeholders believe that a county council elected by district only deserves a chance, given what they see as overwhelming public support.

But they also think voters should have the final say.

So the charter that the freeholders will put to voters next February calls for the five council members to be elected by geographic district in both the primary and general election. Then in 2003, the whole contentious issue of election method will be put to a vote.

“The testimony before us was very consistent in favoring elections by district,” said Kitsap Treasurer Sharon Shrader, one of the architects of the plan to put the matter to a vote.

“After a year, we might be able to tell if the council’s outlook is parochial,” she said, referring to concerns raised by those opposed to district-only elections.

Under the present system, three county commissioners must each live in the geographic district they seek to represent, and any primary election is limited to voters in that particular district. But in the general election, all candidates are voted on county-wide.

The vote to change the present election method for the five council seats was 12-6 at the freeholder meeting last Saturday in Port Orchard, with Bainbridge Island freeholders George McKinney and Andy Maron voting with the minority.

Three strong supporters of the present system were absent, Maron noted, saying “the vote was essentially 12-9.”

The debate over election method has at times taken on an anti-Bainbridge flavor. Voters elsewhere in the county, particularly in South Kitsap, have complained in the past that they have voted one way for the south area commissioner, only to have their will thwarted by a heavy turnout of Bainbridge voters.

Even with the referendum provision, Maron was afraid the vote-by-district plan could sink the charter.

“We have devised, with this charter, significant opposition,” he said. “If we go to the (February) vote with significant opposition, we’re going to lose, and I don’t want to lose.”

Maron voted in favor of the referendum, but thought it was being done backwards.

“If it’s going to be put to a vote, you ought to leave the system the way it is, then vote to change it, rather than changing it with the option of voting to put it back,” he said.

Shrader acknowledged the opposition from Bainbridge, but said that overall, public testimony strongly favored the vote-by-district alternative.

If the methods used to assess public opinion are faulty, as the defenders of the present system have contended, the referendum will allow voters to express their preferences, Shrader said.

If the charter receives a majority vote in February of 2002, the county will then be carved into five geographic districts. Commissioners Chris Endresen and Jan Angel, whose terms run through 2004, will automatically become the council members from the districts in which they reside, and three new council members will be elected from the other districts.

Should the voters opt to change the system in 2003, the districts will remain in place, but all subsequent council members will be chosen county-wide at the general election, Shrader said.

The freeholders also scrapped their original plan to elect the council and the county administrator in partisan elections, and instead made all county offices non-partisan with the exception of the prosecuting attorney, whose office is partisan under state law.

Maron and McKinney once again pushed for a compromise under which three commissioners would be elected strictly by district, with two others elected county-wide in both the primary and general elections. That proposal never came to a vote.

“It didn’t do much for me,” Shrader said. “I think there would be a problem with geographic balance. Two council members would face very expensive county-wide races for offices that would pay the same as the others, and they would tend to come from the more populous areas.”

She noted that the county administrator would be elected county-wide, giving all voters a say in selecting the administrative branch of government.

Neither Maron nor McKinney had decided Tuesday whether he can support the proposed charter.

“Making everything non-partisan across the board is an improvement,” McKinney said. “But I’m still concerned about electing the county administrator, because there are no required qualifications, and you might get someone unqualified. And I’m also concerned about the district elections.”

Central Kitsap Reporter editor Vince Dice contributed to this report.

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