Charter debate comes to SK

Any lingering questions about the Home Rule Charter still nagging John Logan were answered on Tuesday night at the first public forum held on the proposed county constitution.

“I wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth,” said Logan, a South Kitsap-area resident and one of about 50 attendees looking for answers at the event. “I’ve been reading letters to the editor (from both sides) in the paper about the proposed charter, and I didn’t know what to believe. I was waffling.”

Citizens like Logan caught their first public glimpse of the pros and cons linked to the charter at the Kitsap League of Women Voters-sponsored event this week at Givens Community Center in Port Orchard.

A mail-in only election on the charter proposal is slated for Feb. 5.

Charter advocates and former freeholders Jack Hamilton and Linda Webb touted the document during the panel discussion, arguing it would create a steadier balance of power within county government by establishing a five-member, nonpartisan county council and a nonpartisan county executive.

The right of referendum and initiative under the charter installs a third check in the system that imparts power to Kitsap constituents, said Hamilton and Webb.

On the other hand, charter opponents Sherry Appleton, also a former freeholder, and Jim Sharpe, an active Kitsap County Democratic Party member, roasted the document.

They said the charter tips the power balance in favor of the executive, draining influence from the council members, who would be elected in by-district only elections.

The rights of initiative and referendum, they said, would be disruptive to Kitsap County policymaking.

As far as power balance goes, Sharpe contends the executive would carry too much sway within county government since that person would be elected countywide while each councilmember would only represent one-fifth of the county.

The executive would have veto power and no term limits, Sharpe continued.

“Money and power have a lot do do with it,” said Sharpe. “The executive would have a lot of power and term limits for that person would be a good idea.”

Not true, said Webb, who contends the executive’s position would be adequately checked by the five councilmembers under the proposed charter.

“While the council sets policy, the executive administers it,” she said. “While the executive proposes a budget, the council approves it and, in the case of a veto, the council can override it with a supermajority vote (four of the five). The freeholders talked long and hard about balance of powers.”

Even so, the charter drew more fire as the evening progressed because of balance of power and fair representation questions.

Appleton contends that by-district voting is not an adequately represesntative process because voters in each district would only elect one of the five councilmembers to the board.

“The others (four councilmembers) don’t have to listen to you because you didn’t elect them,” she said. “The fact is, every county official currently is elected by all of you and accountable to all of you. That’s not the case under the charter.”

Hamilton disagreed, saying that by-district voting is far more representative of the voters’ interests.

“Somebody got it right,” he said. “That is, one person, one vote.”

Both Webb and Hamilton contend councilmembers elected only within their own districts will listen more closely to that specific district’s interests.

Under the current system, the three county commissioners are elected by their districts in the primary, while voters countywide elect them during the general election.

Sharpe also questioned the notion of nonpartisan offices on the county council and within the executive branch.

“Under the charter, you folks won’t always know who belongs to what party,” said Sharpe. “Why shouldn’t you know? Why would it hurt the function of government to know what party each candidate is affiliated with?”

Webb says peeling off those designations serves voters far greater than leaving party labels in place.

“Nonpartisan elections allow us to get away from those labels,” said Webb. “What is good for the party isn’t actually always what’s best for the community. It also gives us a chance to really look at our candidates well.”

Sharpe also questioned at the forum why the proposed charter calls for the election of councilmembers in odd years when history shows voter turn out in these off years drops off significantly.

“I think it’s a crime to set up a system to pay for an election in years when fewer people vote,” said Sharpe.

Webb thinks the opposite effect could occur in off-year elections.

“The decision was made to have elections in odd years when you’re not having your attention split between national or state elections,” said Webb. “(Plus) going with the by-district voting, you can get to know your candidates much better.”

While Webb and Hamilton call the right to initiative and referendum an appropriate and necessary check within county government, Appleton and Sharpe argued those mechanisms can be too powerful and disruptive.

They also argued about the costs associated with implementing the proposed charter. Opponents say the county would have to spend anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million to pay for its implementation, while charter proponents say it would essentially be a wash.

“We don’t need new staff to implement the charter, we’ve got great staff now,” said Webb. “I believe the opportunitites are there to step back and learn how to run government in more efficient ways.”

Appleton disagreed, saying the charter would introduce a new branch of government and there would be the additional expense of odd-year elections proposed under the charter.

All told, the forum spanned the better part of two hours. Audience members were also allowed time to ask the panelists various questions in the midst of their debate.

Before exiting the community center, Logan said he had finally made up his mind.

“I’m voting for it and you can quote me on that,” he said.

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