CHARTER changes
Here’s what we think of proposed amendments to the Pierce County Charter

By Editorial Board
Published October 22nd 2006 in Tacoma News Tribune
Nine proposed Pierce County charter amendments will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. They were recommended by a charter review commission whose members were elected last fall. In our view, the process of reviewing the charter leaves a lot to be desired; over the 26-year history of the charter, few proposed amendments have made much sense. That is true again this year. The News Tribune’s editorial board recommends rejection of all but one proposal.

Proposed Amendment 1

Provides for an elected sheriff beginning in 2008.

Bad idea. Pierce County’s current form of government, including a sheriff appointed by the county executive, was strongly approved by voters in 1990 following a corruption scandal in the sheriff’s office.

The system has worked well ever since, and there is no good reason to change now. The strongest supporters of the change are the county jailers’ and deputies’ unions, whose members think an elected sheriff would have the clout to get a bigger budget for the department.

As current Sheriff Paul Pastor points out, that ain’t necessarily so. Counties with elected sheriffs have funding problems, too. The county already devotes most of its budget to courts and law enforcement. Last year, voters turned down a tax increase to boost the number of sheriff’s deputies.

Despite this, County Executive John Ladenburg has made every effort to increase the number of deputies within the constraints of the budget. His latest budget proposal would add deputies.

A crucial advantage of the appointive system is that the executive can tap a nationwide pool of experienced talent for the job. An elected sheriff would most likely come only from the ranks of local law enforcement officers; their ability to get elected, not their qualifications, would be the key factor. This is not the way to get the best person for the job. And the executive can fire his sheriff if he’s not performing well; with an bad elected sheriff, citizens have to wait until they can vote the bum out.

The most important reason for keeping the sheriff appointed is to shield the office from politics. An elected sheriff would inevitably be subject to influence from unions and other interest groups. An unhappy deputies union could campaign against a sheriff who made an unpopular management decision. Think of a sheriff who needs to raise $50,000 or $100,000 for each re-election campaign. We’d rather have him focusing on the job than spending any time hustling for campaign cash.

Recommendation: No.

Proposed Amendment 2

Changes performance audit procedures.

Not needed and cumbersome. The county already has performance audits that are conducted to standards required by state law. The County Council can and has ordered performance audits of troubled departments and programs. A revealing performance audit of the county’s mental health care system this year is a good example; healthy changes and smarter governance resulted.

The amendment would require needless and frequent hearings and reports that would cost too much money and staff time. This is another fix for a nonproblem.

Recommendation: No.

Proposed Amendment 3

Implements instant runoff voting.

This is an intriguing experiment in democracy worth trying.

Instant runoff voting is a method that eliminates primary elections and allows voters to rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate draws a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the remaining votes are distributed according to voter preferences. The process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority. The process is done quickly by computer.

Minor parties love IRV. The two major parties hate it – which is understandable, since it gives minor parties better access to the voters. The claim that IRV in Pierce County would weaken the major parties is laughable.

If Amendment 3 is approved, IRV elections would be conducted only for the offices of county executive, County Council, assessor and treasurer. Judges and prosecutors are considered officers of the state.

IRV ensures that the winner is elected by a majority vote. No one wins with a plurality. IRV also allows voters to cast “sincere votes” for the true candidate of their choice, without worrying that doing so might help elect a candidate they dislike.

Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy clearly doesn’t like IRV, although she says she’ll carry out the voters’ wishes. Her office would have to buy new vote-tabulation software; voters in county elections would have to mark two different ballots – one traditional ballot, one for the IRV choices. So some additional expense would be involved, but not a lot.

Voters in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., had little difficulty adjusting to IRV after voters mandated it. The entire nation of Australia uses IRV. We doubt Pierce County voters would have much trouble adapting to it.

IRV also has the potential to increase voter turnout and to favor moderate candidates. Candidates would have to appeal for second-choice votes to win.

IRV is no panacea. But it’s certainly worth a try. If voters later decide they don’t like it, it won’t be difficult to change back.

Recommendation: Yes.

Proposed Amendment 4

Lowers the signature requirement for county initiatives.

The initiative process has its place, but it is not the best way to make legislation. More often than not, initiatives are poorly drafted and end up getting thrown out by the courts due to legal defects. Tim Eyman has learned this the hard way.

Initiatives aren’t the pure expression of popular will that they used to be. Paid signature-gathering now makes it much easier for special interests to put pet proposals on the ballot.

The current requirement – 10 percent of the votes cast for county executive in the previous election – was determined by elected freeholders who thoughtfully constructed the original county charter. It was designed to be neither too difficult nor too easy. Let’s leave it alone.

Recommendation: No.

Proposed Amendment 5

Lowers the signature requirement for county referendums.

The same reasoning on Amendment 4 applies here. Citizens have twice put referendum measures on the ballot since the charter was adopted; no paid signature-gathering was used either time. When citizens are motivated, it can be done. There’s no need to make it easier.

Recommendation: No.

Proposed Amendment 6

Requires the executive to present the county budget 100 days before the end of the year, instead of 75.

Totally unnecessary and impractical. The thinking behind this amendment is that it would the give the council and the public more time to examine and amend the proposed budget.

It’s impractical because all local government officials need to have third-quarter financial reports before making revenue and expense forecasts for the following year. Basing those projections on half a year’s results only means the budget proposal will have to be revamped in the fourth quarter.

The County Council regularly adopts the budget by Thanksgiving, even though the deadline is Dec. 31. So what’s the point?

Recommendation: No.

Proposed Amendment 7

For positions on boards and commissions requiring representation by council district, the executive would be required to appoint one of three nominees named by the district’s council member.

This is a bald attempt to shift power to the council – a major departure from the balance crafted by the original freeholders. The executive now advertises for applicants for such positions; his choices must be confirmed by the council. The appointee must live in the district he or she represents.

Enacting Amendment 7 would invite more political cronyism. Think of the implications: No one not favored by the nominating council member could be considered for an appointment. Currently, anyone interested can apply.

Recommendation: No.

Proposed Amendment 8

Gives the county assessor and the auditor (and the sheriff, if elected) more administrative power over their departments.

This is another unwarranted effort to trim the executive’s administrative authority. The executive does not meddle in the routine staffing and administrative decisions of these offices. But the executive can require that the financial and data systems of these departments be integrated with and compatible with other county departments.

For example, there’s no reason the county auditor or the assessor should adopt a payroll system or computer system different from the rest of the county.

The biggest supporter of this change is former Auditor Cathy Pearsall-Stipek, who was one of this year’s charter review commissioners. She fought with then-Executive Doug Sutherland over technology decisions. No other former or present elected county officials are promoting this amendment.

Recommendation: No.

Proposed Amendment 9

Forbids the use of eminent domain to take private property for private economic development.

The case for this amendment is just bogus. The Washington Constitution already makes it clear that state and local governments cannot condemn private property for anything other than appropriate public use. Recent controversial state court decisions have not changed this fact.

Proponents cannot point to any instance in which Pierce County improperly exercised eminent domain.

Eminent domain is a fundamental and necessary government power that is regulated by the state constitution. In almost all cases, it is used for construction of public projects like roads. If any changes are necessary, they should be made by legislative deliberation and subsequent voter approval of a constitutional amendment. Having counties enact their own eminent domain statutes, which could vary from county to county, is nuts.

Recommendation: No.