Home-rule county charter for Jefferson raises plenty of questions
Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
Val Phimister explains the charter process to a crowd of more than 100 people at the first home-rule charter forum.
By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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“Our main goal is public education,” said Val Phimister, spokesperson for the Community Rights Coalition of Jefferson County, which submitted the petitions July 30 that started the process rolling.
“People will need a lot of information before they need to make their decision on Election Day,” Phimister said at the forum at the Tri-Area Community Center on Thursday that was attended by more than 100 people.
On Nov. 5, voters in Jefferson County will decide whether the county should change to a charter system.
On the same ballot, they will consider a total of 51 freeholder candidates and elect a slate of 15 — choosing five from each county commissioner district — who will be sworn in if the process is approved.
Elected freeholders would be charged with writing by June 20, 2015, a county charter that must be approved by the voters before it is enacted into law and becomes the blueprint for county government.
The state constitution permits counties to write home-rule charters to provide a form of government that differs from the commission form proscribed by state law.
Ballots will be mailed to registered voters Oct. 16.
Several forums are planned on the charter government issue, with others expected to be scheduled.
The forums fall into two categories: those that explain the charter process itself and address the first ballot measure, and candidate forums in which those running for freeholder meet the public.
Last week's forum at the Tri-Area Community Center was a combination of the two.
After presentations about the process of creating a charter system of government, eight of the 15 freeholder candidates from Commissioner District 2 participated in a question-and-answer session.
District 2 covers Cape George, Kala Point, Nordland, Chimacum, Port Hadlock, Irondale and Four Corners.
District 1, which includes the city of Port Townsend and the adjacent area, has the most candidates, with 20.
Sixteen filed in District 3, which covers southeast Jefferson County and then extends west to the Pacific coast and the communities of Kalaloch and Queets.
The forum was sponsored by the Jefferson County Republican Party and featured a representative of the Democratic Party, with both sides stressing that the charter process is nonpartisan.
Neither party plans to take a stand, but both have formed committees to study the issue and report the pros and cons of the process, representatives said.
“When the charter is finished, we will then take a position,” said Jefferson Republican Chairman Gene Farr, a freeholder candidate who also served as moderator.
Bruce Cowan said county Democrats have formed a study group “to determine what issues are important and what people are trying to accomplish with the charter.
“The initiative process, which a charter government will most likely include, can be an effective tool, but it can also result in the county ending up in court.”
The charter's sponsors have said they hope to create an initiative process in which voters can decide specific points of governance and develop a county bill of rights.
Once assembled, the board of freeholders can go beyond these parameters.
It could, for instance, increase the number of county commissioners — which is now three— designate the appointment of some offices that are now elected, or vice versa; or consider other changes.
Several speakers compared the charter to a county constitution that can be amended according to the will of the people.
Several people asked during the forum if specific issues, such as allowing net pens aquaculture, can be forbidden through a charter.
The answer is that a county charter must operate within the parameters of state and federal law.
The purpose of the charter is not to address specific issues but to improve the governmental process so issues can be addressed better, freeholder candidates said.
“If an initiative passes, the commissioners can't overthrow it,” said candidate Michael Regan.
“This will give more power to the voice of the people.”
Both Farr and Phimister said they plan candidate forums in each district, but none has yet been scheduled.
The first scheduled issues forum will be conducted by the Port Townsend Rotary Club at noon Oct. 8 at the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St.
The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce plans a forum at noon Oct. 21 at the Port Townsend Elks Club, 555 Otto St.
The League of Women Voters plans to sponsor a forum but has not determined a time or place, said spokeswoman Jackie Aase, who said it would concentrate on the charter issue rather than the individual candidates.
The Kiwanis Club hasn't planned a date for a charter forum but could schedule one in October, according to club President Helen Brink.
All agree that choosing freeholders will not be easy.
“We should be looking for people who have the ability to do this job,” Cowan said.
“Voters need to examine each candidate and support them based on the things they hold as worthwhile.”
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or email@example.com.
Last modified: August 24. 2013 5:31PM