District-only commissioner elections became hot topic in debate over home-rule county charter
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Charlie Bermant (2)/Peninsula Daily News
Representing both sides of Proposition 1, the home-rule county charter measure on the current election ballot, are proponents Julia Cochrane, left, and Val Phimister in the top photo, and opponents Bruce Cowan, left, and County Commissioner John Austin. Both pairs took up separate portions of Sims Way on Friday.

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Those favoring and opposing a home-rule charter for Jefferson County have been out in force, talking up their position and lining up along Sims Way to get the word out about their point of view.

A major issue is the idea of direct election of commissioners in the three districts.

By Nov. 5 at 8 p.m., voters in Jefferson County will have decided whether the county should begin the home-rule charter process and vote for five freeholders in each of the three county commissioner districts.

Ballots in the all-mail election were mailed to registered voters Wednesday.

Forums have been held throughout East Jefferson County, with the final scheduled forum set for noon Monday at the weekly meeting of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce at the Port Townsend Elks Club, 555 Otto St.

If voters reject starting a charter process, then electing 15 freeholders out of a field of about 50 will become moot.

If they approve county Proposition 1, the elected freeholders would be charged with writing a proposed charter by June 20, 2015.

The charter then would go before voters.

Home-rule charters, such as the charter operating in neighboring Clallam County, are permitted by the state constitution as a way for counties to provide forms of government that might differ from the commission form prescribed by state law.

Under the current system, voters in the three districts select the top two candidates in the primary. Then, the entire county votes on the candidates in the general election.

Several freeholder candidates have made the direct election of commissioners by district their top priority, according to statements in the Peninsula Daily News' General Election Voter Guide and at forums.

They say District 1, which includes the more heavily populated Port Townsend, tends to hold greater sway in elections.

“The one thing I'd like to see in the charter is to have the people in District 3 elect their own commissioner,” District 3 freeholder candidate Craig Durgan said during a September forum.

District 3 covers southeast Jefferson County and extends west to the Pacific coast and the communities of Kalaloch and Queets.

“I don't think that it's correct that District 1 gets to decide who will represent us,” Durgan said.

“It's like having everyone in the local area vote in a presidential primary and allowing the rest of the world to vote in the general election to elect the president.”

Said District 2 freeholder candidate Jim Fritz: “Port Townsend always gets what it wants.

“And people in the south county think that Port Townsend is full of communists who lie awake nights thinking of ways to make their lives miserable.”

Fritz said the Democratic majority in Port Townsend offsets the more moderate voters in the other districts.

District 2 covers Cape George, Kala Point, Nordland, Chimacum, Port Hadlock, Irondale and Four Corners.

“District 3 voters don't feel like they are being represented and that Port Townsend is electing the commissioners,” said District 3 candidate Diane Johnson.

“If you look at the last few elections, there are candidates who did not win their district who were elected.”

The Jefferson County Auditor's Office records that four commissioners since 2000 were elected to the office without prevailing in their own districts: Dan Titterness in 2000, Wendy Wrinkle in 2002, David Sullivan in 2008 and John Austin in 2010.

Sullivan, who won a majority in his own district in 2004 and 2012 — and who is against the idea of a charter — specifically opposes the district general elections for county commissioners.

“I won with 10,000 votes last year, and [Commissioner] Phil Johnson won with 11,000 votes,” Sullivan said.

“If we had direct elections, we could have won with as few as 3,600 votes, and we would not have been accountable to the voters in other districts.”

Sullivan said in a district-only election, commissioners wouldn't have to campaign in other districts and familiarize themselves with county-wide issues.

“In direct elections, you don't have to care about other districts,” he said.

“It will make everything more divisive and increase polarization.”

Sullivan said the powers of the charter are limited.

“What the people supporting the charter don't understand is that anything we pass here will not be able to circumvent anything that is in the state constitution,” he said.

“People are being misled,” Sullivan added.

“They are under the impression they can forbid net pens and roadside spraying.

“It's mostly about organizing county government, but that's not our problem.”

Val Phimister, a spokeswoman for the Community Rights Coalition, which gathered the signatures to put the measure on the ballot, said direct election of commissioners isn't a sure thing for any charter.

“All those issues will be on the table,” she said.

“The freeholders will listen to the people, get into it and do what the county needs.”

Phimister said the right to referendum is built into all home-rule charters.

“There is no guarantee that anything aside from the right to referendum will be in the charter,” she said.

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: October 19. 2013 6:37PM
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