Opinion

Four-year Manchester port terms on ballot

Voters in the Manchester Port District get the opportunity in the April election to shorten the terms of office for their port district commissioners.

If approved by a majority of voters, the ballot proposition would cause the terms of office for commissioners elected in 2013 and thereafter to be four years rather than six years.

It would have no effect on the terms of commissioners who are already in office.

Rather than continuing to elect one of the three commissioners in the odd-numbered years, voters would elect one in 2013, one in 2015, and two in 2017.

From 2017 onward, it would work the same as for the election of county commissioners.  At every other general election two would be elected rather than one.

The change would offer some advantages and disadvantages, depending on the circumstances.

Having to stand for re-election every four years may make commissioners who desire to continue in office more responsive to the voters. There would be less time to persuade voters that an unpopular decision shouldn’t warrant being replaced by someone else.

Being able to vote out two rather than one commissioner every other general election may also make the commissioners more responsive to voters, since the majority on the commission could change in the years when two are elected.

It may make the position of port commissioner more attractive to people who hesitate to make a commitment to serve six years, so voters might get more choices at election time.

It could also be a disadvantage to require people to stand for re-election every four years, since not everyone who holds public office relishes campaigning.  Some people may be attracted by a six-year term and put off by a four-year term.

Another possible disadvantage is a loss of institutional memory and continuity when two commissioners are replaced rather than one in the years when two must stand for re-election.

Of course, if the voters were itching to replace them, they would see this as an advantage. When continuity offers little prospect of desired changes, replacing two out of three commissioners wouldn’t seem like a bad thing.

The additional cost of electing two commissioners rather than one at every other general election may also count as a disadvantage.

This greater cost for elections may be only a few thousand dollars more, but it would mean less revenue is available to maintain and operate the port’s facilities.

If having more responsive commissioners and a greater choice among candidates outweigh the fiscal impact of higher election costs, then the shorter terms of office may seem worth the expense.

Shortening the term of office doesn’t mean there has to be a tax increase to accommodate the change, but voters should probably wonder about the effect on the port’s budget.

The port commissioners wouldn’t be able to offset the extra cost by raising the property tax levy more than the usual one percent plus new construction, but they could ask voters to approve a lid lift if the added cost takes too much away from maintenance and operations spending.

If there are voters who are inclined to approve this shortening of the commissioners’ terms just to see how it works out, they should consider the apparent absence of any authority to change back again.

Once voters approve four-year terms rather than six-year terms of office, there seems to be no way to go back to six-year terms without amending state law.

Unless someone finds an easy way back before the April election, voters need to weigh the possible advantages and disadvantages as though this is the only time they can decide the issue.

Rejecting the proposition and sticking with the current six-year terms would not mean there never could be a shortening of commissioners’ terms in some subsequent election.

But approving it may mean the Manchester Port District is stuck with the shorter terms even though the change later seems to have been a bad idea.

It’s nice to have an opportunity to decide, and it’s even better to weigh the alternatives carefully before deciding.

 

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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