Charter changes now up to you
Nine issues go to Nov. 7 ballot

By Aaron Corvin
Published June 18th 2006 in The News Tribune

Come November, Pierce County voters will decide a smorgasbord of proposals to remodel county government, including making the job of sheriff an elected position, adopting a different way to elect some county officials and bolstering property rights.

In a series of votes, the Charter Review Commission on Saturday decided to send nine of 15 possible changes to the county’s constitution to voters on the Nov. 7 ballot.

But the elected 21-member panel’s work isn’t done.

It delayed action on three other proposals, which differ in detail but share the same goal: making county officials more accountable to the public. The commission is expected to decide those proposals Thursday.

Accountability and public access to government are common themes throughout the proposals adopted by the commission Saturday, said Commissioner Grant Pelesky of Puyallup.

He said the commission “has done the work of being the eyes and ears of the general electorate.”

Voters elected the commission last November to direct a six-month review of the county’s 1980 home-rule charter, the county’s equivalent to a constitution. It’s a process the charter requires every 10 years.

The commission, a group including attorneys, businesspeople, former lawmakers, retirees, a homemaker, a doctor, a teacher and a farmer, has until June 30 to complete its work.

County residents like Rick Sorrels are watching what the panel does Thursday, when it decides the three delayed proposals.

Sorrels, a Key Peninsula resident, wants the commission to propose an independent oversight board that listens to citizens and investigates their complaints.

“The current system shuts the citizen out,” he said.

On Saturday, the commission tackled the 15 proposals that made it to a final vote. It adopted nine of them, including making sheriff an elected position rather than one appointed by the executive and confirmed by the County Council.

The question of an elected sheriff will go to voters with 27 years of history in tow: The 1978 arrest of Sheriff George Janovich on federal racketeering charges spurred the creation of the county’s 1980 home-rule charter, which eliminated an elected sheriff.

Commissioner Michael Venuto of University Place said the proposal would give voters more confidence in the sheriff and strengthen the sheriff’s ability to boost funding for public safety.

Commissioner Burt Talcott of Gig Harbor called the proposal “one of the worst,” saying it would make it more difficult to get rid of a bad sheriff.

The commission also adopted a proposal to use a different system for electing all county officials except for judges and the prosecuting attorney: instant runoff voting. Under that system, voters would cast ballots allowing them to rank all candidates for an office in their order of preference.

The commission took on property rights, too. It proposed adding an eminent domain section to the charter, prohibiting the county from taking private property for economic development. The county would be allowed to take private property only for public use.

Commissioner Geoff Hymans of Tacoma, an assistant attorney general and a sponsor of the eminent domain proposal, said it was legal, in part because the home-rule charter allows the county to go further than state law in protecting private property rights.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Denise Greer, one of two county prosecutors advising the commission, said the proposal “very likely” conflicts with state law, in part because it goes further in limiting the circumstances in which property may be taken for public use.