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Is the charter really smarter?

To its backers, the proposed Kitsap County charter will make county government more responsive to the people, reduce costs and improve performance.

To its opponents, the charter will exacerbate division within the county, increase costs and potentially paralyze government operations.

“I’m reluctantly not in favor of it,” said Andy Maron of Bainbridge Island, one of the 21 freeholders that drafted the document. “There is a lot I like about it, but it goes too far in some areas.”

If a majority of voters approve, the charter would become a county “constitution” that would set out the form of government. Five counties have charters. The others, including Kitsap at present, are governed by provisions of state law.

Ballots in the mail-only election will go out next week, county auditor Karen Flynn said. They must be postmarked by Feb. 5.

The charter would replace the three present county commissioners and appointed administrator with a five-member county council and elected administrator, who could veto council actions.

The charter would give voters the powers of initiative, referendum and recall, which presently exist at the statewide level, but not at the county level.

The latter provisions have drawn fire from charter opponents as being too readily available, posing the risk of a “paralyzed” county government.

Under the charter, an initiative – citizen-originated legislation – can be instigated by a petition bearing signatures of 8 percent of the people who voted for governor in the last election.

With just over 103,000 votes cast in the county in 2000 for governor, that means about 8,000 signatures could put an issue to county-wide vote.

“I strongly objected to this because it is too easy to engineer,” Maron said. “Four of the other charter counties with initiatives require 10 to 15 percent signatures, and allow only 90 days to collect them, while this charter gives 180 days to collect 8 percent.

“We went from no initiative to extremely generous.”

The procedure for a referendum – putting a council-passed action to the voters – is also controversial.

If a petition bearing 250 signatures is filed within ten days of the ordinance’s passage, the operation of the ordinance is stayed for at least 90 days while the opponents collect signatures.

Signatures of 4 percent of those who voted for governor – about 4,000 Kitsap residents – would force a vote at the next election.

Freeholder Jim Martin of Port Orchard, a charter proponent, defended that procedure as being consistent with the state constitution.

And Martin also said that county-wide referendums are used so seldom that paralysis is unlikely.

“In the end, it all comes down to the voters,” he said. “People criticize Tim Eyman for his initiatives, but it’s the voters who pass them. I’m one of the few people who believe that voters are smart enough to read and understand them.”

Matt Ryan, another pro-charter freeholder from Brownsville, says fears of county initiatives running amok are exaggerated.

“You still have to comply with state law,” he said. “So if people worry that the comprehensive plan would be wiped out by initiative, that can’t happen.”

The charter would also change the election procedure, moving elections for all offices except the executive to odd-number years.

“I’m against that,” said County Auditor Flynn. “Turnout is lower in those years. And it increases costs.”

Some Kitsap cities, including Bainbridge Island, hold municipal elections in odd-numbered years.

But the cities pay for those elections, Flynn said. If the county also held elections, it would have to absorb the cost of between $150,000 and $175,000 each biennium, she said.

Charter friends and foes also disagree on whether overall costs would increase or decrease.

Estimates by the county administrator and a subcommittee of the freeholders put annual cost increases at between $500,000 and $1 million, mostly for increased staff.

But Martin and Ryan, among others, say those figures are too high. Their protests led Flynn to delete any fiscal note from the voters’ pamphlet, which will also go out next week containing the text of the charter and pro and con statements.

“They failed to recognize the savings,” Martin said. “I think just having the right of initiative available will keep spending down.”

Maron disagreed.

“I don’t think anybody can predict whether budgets will increase or decrease,” he said. “Personally, I think the change will be more expensive, but that’s a relatively small amount compared to the needs of the county. That’s not why I’m opposed.”

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