Panel OKs proposals to amend county charter

PORT ANGELES — Voters will consider again two familiar measures Nov. 3 that would broaden how they select Clallam County commissioners and make the only elected land-use director in the nation an appointed position.

The proposals are among six amendments to the county charter that the Charter Review Commission adopted Thursday for placement on the general election ballot.

COVID-19 restrictions limited public comment on their formulation, the chair of the group putting forward the proposals said Friday.

In a 10-4 tally July 16, the 15-member charter review commission decided to let voters determine for a fourth time if commissioners should be elected by voters countywide instead of being elected solely by the district they represent and in which they live.

In a 12-3 vote July 23, they decided to ask voters for a fifth time if the Department of Community Development director should be appointed.

Coronavirus restrictions on public meetings have limited public comment, charter review board Chair Sue Erzen of Sequim lamented Friday.

All six measures, which include making the prosecuting attorney position nonpartisan, reviewing the charter every eight years instead of five by holding commission elections at that time, and making it easier to file initiatives, are at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-CharterMeasures.

“The defining characteristic of the 2020 commission is the pandemic, as it is the defining characteristic of this period of time, and so we could not receive the kind of in-person public input that has always happened heretofore,” Erzen said.

“That has limited our reach.”

Erzen, who served on the 2007 charter review board, was thankful at least that a SurveyMonkey survey (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-CharterResponses) garnered 740 responses to several proposals and that the public was able to participate via Zoom, giving some direction to the panel.

County commissioners were elected countywide until 2015.

All three current county commissioners — Mark Ozias, Randy Johnson and Bill Peach — were elected in their most recent elections solely by their districts.

Charter review commission members Norma Turner of Port Angeles, a community activist, and Rod Fleck, the Forks city attorney-planner, have served on multiple charter review commission and fall on different sides of the county commissioner and DCD proposals.

Voters rejected charter review amendments to have county commissioners elected by districts in 1983 and 2003 before approving the change in 2015.

Turner said it is unfair that the three sitting county commissioners who represent Sequim-area District 1, Port Angeles-area District 2, and Port Angeles-West End-area District 3 decide on countwide issues yet were elected by no more than 24 percent of the voters who cast ballots countywide.

“We elect port [of Port Angeles] commissioners and [public utility district] commissioners countywide, so what’s so special about the county commissioners,” Turner said Friday.

In addition, she said, other countywide officials were elected in balloting that involves, say, 60 percent of eligible voters are being overseen by commissioners elected with far smaller constituencies.

“That doesn’t feel equal,” she said. “It makes no sense as far as I’m concerned.”

Every commissioner is beholden to every county voter when they are voted on by all voters, Turner added.

“When they are only elected by district, it seems to me that when they make votes that impact the county, you should have to answer for it the next time you run for election,” she said.

Fleck said voters made their wishes clearly known in 2015 by approving district-only voting with a 62 percent majority.

He compared by-district representation in Clallam County to by-district representation in the state Legislature, where lawmakers are elected by districts but vote on statewide issues.

Fleck, who lives in District 3, said it forces commissioners to strongly adhere to the interests of their areas as well as work with two other commissioners for the benefit of the entire county.

“Bill Peach can’t make some proposal solely for the benefit of the West End and count on having a second vote,” Fleck said.

“In the past, the argument was that something might be important to the West End but that it really wasn’t important across the county.

“Some would argue that things were working to the detriment of the West End for decades.”

Fleck said if the measure is approved, it could be challenged under the state Voting Rights Act.

“It’s not a lawsuit. It’s a process,” he said.

The issue could be that changing the mode of election would not adequately represent protected classes on the West End such as members of three tribes and a substantial Latino community.

“They could have a significant influence as registered voters as to who represents them as well as the county,” he said.

In 1983, voters rejected an amendment to create a department of permits and planning headed by an elected director in that would have consolidated land-use and permitting functions in one office.

Voters decided in 2002 to make the DCD director job an elected position following turmoil over then-Director Bob Martin, who was appointed by county commissioners and retired as the appointed county public works director in 2017.

More than 60 percent of voters approved turning it into an elective office in 2002. Voters rejected proposed charter review amendments in 2007 and 2015 to revert to appointed status.

According to the county charter, the DCD director “shall administer, enforce and advise the County Commissioners on all laws, except health, with respect to the environment, natural resources, and land and shoreline development, including, but not limited to, zoning, land divisions, environmental policy, building and fire codes, forest management, mining, agriculture, watershed planning, and floodplains.”

The director also “shall prepare and present to the County Commissioners for consideration of adoption by ordinance, with or without amendment, comprehensive or other plans and use or development regulations for the use and physical development of the county.”

Fleck said voters don’t look kindly on attempts to take away their right to vote on something that affects them.

“They want a person in charge of building and land use, a person in charge of making decisions on their dreams about a home and property, and they want that person to be accountable to them,” Fleck said.

He noted other technical positions such as state insurance commissioner and county assessors and auditor are elected.

“Under our charter, we can do unique things, and our voters have said they like this,” Fleck said.

Turner said the position was turned into an elected office “basically as an attempt to solve a personality issue” involving Martin.

She said making the DCD director an elected position can limit the qualifications of those who fill the office who need land-use expertise and other specific skills that can’t be added as qualifications for the position.

Ozias and current DCD Director Mary Ellen Winborn both have agreed the position should be appointed, as have past elected DCD directors.

In the SurveyMonkey results, 52.5 percent of respondents favored keeping the position as an appointed office while 40 percent were opposed and 7.5 percent were undecided.

On by-district voting for county commissioner, 50.5 percent of SurveyMonkey respondents favored keeping the status quo, 43 percent were opposed and 6.5 percent were undecided.

Primaries were and still are decided by district-only voting.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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