PORT ANGELES — Amendments to Clallam County’s Home Rule Charter that would affect the selection process of the nation’s only land-use director position, change the number of signatures needed to place on a ballot an initiative to repeal the charter, and decrease the frequency of charter reviews were debated Tuesday.
Arguments for and against the measures were presented at the Port Angeles Business Association election season forum.
The three proposals are among six amendments on the Nov. 3 general election ballot that will be mailed to voters Oct. 14. A debate on the other measures was presented at last week’s PABA meeting.
Amendments are intended to tweak the home rule charter, adopted in 1976. Clallam is the second oldest of seven home-rule charter counties in the state.
The Department of Community Development director position was appointed by the county commissioners until 2002, when it became an elected post.
Voters twice rejected amendments to return it to appointed status, first in 2007, then in 2015 by 65 percent.
A more recent charter review commission survey of 742 respondents had 52.5 percent in favor of appointing the DCD direct, 40 percent in favor of electing the person and 7.5 percent undecided.
The job’s uniqueness as an elected position makes it difficult to perform, said Charter Review Commission member Patti Morris, who is running for Clallam Public Utility District commissioner.
If approved, it would become effective at the end of current DCD Director Mary Ellen Winborn’s term, which expires Dec. 31, 2022. Winborn favors the change.
“I believe she’s doing a good job, but is hindered by the lack of local, state and national laws and regulations for an elected DCD director,” Morris said.
Morris said county elected and appointed officials agree the position should be appointed.
Winborn is treated like an appointed staff member, with a job description of advising the commissioners on land-use matters.
The ultimate authority rests with the commissioners, “and I don’t see that that’s going to change,” Morris said.
The charter said once a director is selected, land-use ordinances were to be amended by Dec. 31, 2004, which has not occurred, and which has put the DCD position “in limbo,” Morris said.
Morris said the charter also directs a land-use hearing examiner position would be established by the county commissioners.
“Again it’s back to the board of county commissioner having legislative and executive authority to deal with those issues,” she said.
Rod Fleck, city of Forks attorney/planner, said home-rule charter status gives Clallam County “great flexibility, creativity and adaptability” to respond to the county’s needs.
Fleck said in 2002 he was hesitant about the amendment.
“With the issues that were going on at that time, we had a huge argument of political influence in the director of community development and that was going in a way that the public was not really privy to and understanding of,” he said.
Every charter review commission since 2002 has argued, “we’re a charter county, but we shouldn’t be unique” by suggesting the post should revert to being appointed, Fleck said.
“That’s inherently problematic to me,” he said.
Some have argued voters “didn’t get it right,” Fleck said, despite holding their ground in 2007 and 2015.
“What’s changed?” he asked.
He compared it to the assessor, auditor and treasurer positions, all elected.
“They have a unique level of control and influence over one thing that most people across the political spectrum hold dear to them — the right of their property,” he said.
County commissioners “failed to do their job” by not reviewing the ordinances, claiming they “can’t do anything” because it’s an elected position, he said.
“Use the power in the charter,” Fleck insisted.
Morris responded that land-use decisions should not be politicized.
“Clallam County deserves the most qualified community development director possible,” she said.
“Every jurisdiction in the nation appoints this position, so why are we so unique?
“The position is nonpolitical everywhere but here.”
Voters have “a unique ability” to find the best person for the position,” Fleck responded.
Charter Review Commission Chair Sue Erzen argued for lowering the threshold of signatures required to put an initiative to repeal the charter on the ballot. It would be reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent of registered voters who voted for governor in the last statewide election.
The five other home-rule charter counties allow 20 percent.
“This is an issue of fairness to voters,” Erzen said, adding the current requirement sets a bar reachable only with paid signature gatherers.
“The current number stands out as an incredible obstacle to citizens.”
Commission member Ron Cameron, the Clallam County undersheriff, argued for keeping it at 35 percent.
“It’s high, but it should be,” he said.
“There was no public input on this whatsoever that I saw,” he added.
Cameron also argued against an amendment that reduces how often charter review commissions convene. It would be reduced from every five years to every eight years.
Cameron said the charter does not have to change every time the commission convenes.
“It’s a charter review, not a charter change,” he said.
“I think it’s very important to all of us, particularly for our community and the citizens of Clallam County, that we be energetic in reviewing our processes constantly.”
Erzen argued for fewer commission meetings, adding that charter review commissioners still would meet more often than in any other charter counties.
“The purpose of charter review is to create or codify the overarching framework of our local government,” Erzen said.
Commission members don’t write laws, ordinances, codes or policies, she added.
Other proposed amendments would mandate that, in a general election, county commissioners be selected by voters countywide instead of by district only; that the prosecuting attorney be a nonpartisan position; and that a scrivener’s change be made in the charter to say “county” commissioner and not just commissioner.
Further information is under “Measures” at tinyurl.com/PDN-CharterBallot.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].