Is county charter good for Bainbridge?Local freeholders are troubled by a provision that would curb the influence of island voters.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:59 PM
"Kitsap County's freeholders will show islanders the first draft of their proposed new county charter next week.But far from seeking support, Bainbridge's two freeholders see the meeting as an opportunity to make a show of force against a provision they say is bad for both the island and the county, and may in fact be aimed at diluting the island's influence on county government.We're better off with what we have now than with this new charter, said George McKinney, who joined Andy Maron on the 21-member board writing a new constitution for Kitsap County.The poison pill is a provision that the five members of the county council be both nominated and elected by district. Currently, the three county legislators, now called commissioners, are nominated by geographic district, but then elected county-wide, with all voters casting ballots for all three commission seats.Maron says that elections by district may make conceptual sense, but he does not think the plan is appropriate for Kitsap County, which he says is already too divided on geographic lines.It's not evil, but it's not what we need in this county, he said. We need processes that bring us more together.The Bainbridge meeting Tuesday evening is part of the process of finalizing the charter. After the freeholders gather public input - a process that will continue through September - they will vote on a final draft sometime in October.The final proposal will be handed to the commissioners in November, McKinney said. They will then determine when to present the proposal to the county's voters, probably in early 2002.In order to become law, the new charter must be approved by a majority of county voters. And they will have to vote straight up or down - the ballot cannot contain alternative provisions from which the voters can select.If the charter passes, the new form of government will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on New Year's Day of 2003.The final draft is available for review on the county's web site under the freeholder label.Here are the critical provisions:* Election districts. By far the most heated issue has been the question of at-large versus district elections for the five council positions, which would be elected on partisan ballots. And the focus, McKinney said, was on Bainbridge, which tends historically to have a high and largely Democratic turnout.I'd say that was 99 percent of it, McKinney said. I heard it said more than once by more than one freeholder they we're tired of Bainbridge electing their our commissioners, McKinney said. In at least two recent elections for commissioner - the election of Tim Botkin to the central district seat and Charlotte Garrido to the southern district seat - the majority of general-election votes within the geographical confines of the district were for the Republican candidate. But Bainbridge votes swung the election to the Democrats.Matt Ryan of Bremerton, a former Republican commissioner and one of the staunch supporters of district elections, did not totally disagree with that analysis.When I was knocking on doorbells, people in the south end resented the fact that Bainbridge voted Garrido into office, he said.Maron and McKinney wanted to retain the system of nominating by district and electing at large. That position garnered six votes, while 13 of the freeholders voted for election-by-district.Maron and McKinney then floated a compromise plan - three council member elected by district and two elected at large.That way, every voter in the county would have an opportunity to vote for a majority of the council, McKinney said. But the opposition - what he took to calling the Granite 13 for the hardness of their views - would not budge.There was simply no interest in talking about that, Maron said.Some of the sentiment for district elections may have been partisan.There was a lot of talk about R's and D's during the debates, McKinney said.Ryan said the issue was balance - giving the Republicans a chance to pick up at least some council seats in an area that he thinks is trending Democratic.Since we've lost the opportunity to develop home-based industries, Kitsap County is going to become more like Seattle, he said. I'd be surprised if we had a Republican county executive.Maron fears an overall increase in partisanship.You suddenly make the drawing of district lines incredibly important. It's going to be a huge issue, he said.Districting and redistricting will be handled by a bipartisan group made up of two members appointed by each major political party, who will choose a fifth person as chairman. Maron said his objection was not to the composition of the commission, but rather, to the creation of another potentially divisive issue.The Bainbridge freeholders see next week's meeting as a chance - perhaps the only chance - to substitute a compromise position into the final charter.I think that about a third of the group is strongly in favor of elections by district, and a third are strongly opposed, Maron said. The middle third has gone with district elections so far. But everyone is interested in passing a charter that will be accepted by the voters. Opposition to the district election provision will have persuasive force, and I hope enough people express concern.Maron said he is still undecided on whether to support the existing draft.If we have a charter in place, we can amend it, he said. If we don't, we have to operate under state law. I'd like to vote for the charter just because it gives us flexibility in the future, but it will be hard with the district election provision.* County executive. The charter calls for a county executive - sort of a county-wide mayor - who would be the chief administrator of county government.In another divided vote, the freeholders opted for an elected rather than an appointed executive. The executive would be elected on a partisan ballot for a four-year term.It was a separation-of-powers question, McKinney said. The rationale for electing the executive was so that he or she would not be beholden to the council.The countervailing consideration, though, was qualifications, McKinney said. The draft charter requires only that a candidate for the executive position be 21 and a resident for a year.You don't even need to be a high school graduate, he said.McKinney is concerned that highly qualified county executives would not run for the job on a partisan ballot. I worry about the qualifications and about politicizing the job, he said.The executive would have the power to veto council action, which veto could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the council - four votes, if all five members are present.* Other offices. The other county executive offices - assessor, auditor, treasurer, sheriff and clerk - would continue to be elected, but on non-partisan ballots. The coroner would cease to be elected, and instead be appointed by the county executive.The county prosecuting attorney's job is specified by state statute, and could not be altered by the freeholders. That position will continue to be filled by partisan elections.I would have preferred to see more of the technical offices be appointed, Maron said. But this is the type of change that he said could be amended in future years, and was not reason to oppose the charter.* Initiative, referendum and recall. The charter contains provision for citizen initiatives that basically model the state provisions, with one major exception. Under the proposed charter, any initiative calling for new expenditures must state specifically how the money is to be raised, or what expenses are going to be cut. Initiative petitions, that is, citizen-initiated legislation, must bear signatures in a number equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial elections. Referendum petitions, that is, demands to vote on a council action, must bear signatures equal to 4 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.Recall petitions to remove an official from office are authorized pursuant to the state constitution, which permits such removals only for malfeasance. The draft charter does not change those provisions.* Expenses. The draft charter sets the county executive's salary at $95,000, and the council members' salaries at $52,000, the latter figure arrived at by adding up the three salaries paid the present commissioners and dividing by five.The freeholders wanted to be revenue-neutral, and in that respect they were, McKinney said.But he believes overall costs will go up, because five council members will each need some staff. The executive, especially one not specifically trained in county government, will need staff - indeed, the charter specifically alludes to the need to hire deputy administrators.McKinney said he had seen no specific budget projections, but anticipated that costs for the council and executive would be as much as double the present costs for the commission and administrator's office. "