One of the foundations of democracy in the United States is separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, a separation that remains strong at the federal and state levels, but gets progressively weaker at the local level.
Article XI, sections 4 and 5 of the Washington state Constitution authorize the legislature to create a uniform system of government for counties, which is the three-member commission form set forth in RCW Title 36. The Constitution was amended in 1948 to provide counties the option of adopting a "home rule" charter, allowing them to reform the uniform system.
There have been three previous attempts to adopt a home rule charter in Thurston County, but the last one was 25 years ago. The six counties in Washington that have home rule charters contain over half the state’s population, and we should give our voters the chance to join them because of Thurston County’s projected growth to almost 400,000 people by 2040.
Currently, the Thurston County commissioners serve as both the legislative and executive branches of government, but do not have executive powers for the offices under the jurisdiction of other elected officials, including the sheriff, assessor, treasurer and auditor. While the courts are managed as a separate branch of government, the Thurston County commissioners exercise quasi-judicial authority over some hearing examiner decisions.
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The recent exercise of this power resulted in a $12 million jury verdict against the county. While this decision is under appeal, it is a stark reminder of the risks of not separating governmental powers.
The commissioners have final budget authority, yet do not have direct control over the offices of the other elected officials. Conversely, other elected officials must manage their offices with no say in the bargaining process or control over their final budgets.
Under the Open Public Meetings Act, no two commissioners can meet without calling a public meeting, creating a severe constraint on creativity and planning. With the same body making laws and administering them, the traditional system of checks and balances does not exist at the county level.
I support Better Thurston’s proposed “home rule” charter that would make three simple and basic reforms:
1) Slice the county into five districts to provide better representation for suburban, rural and south county citizens and to enable commissioner subcommittees to work on problems before presenting proposed solutions to the full Board of County Commissioners.
2) Add an elected county executive to oversee daily operations of the county, thus clearly separating legislative and executive powers.
3) Provide Thurston County citizens with the powers of initiative and referendum, giving us a direct means of holding our county government accountable.
While some predict that these reforms would increase the cost of an already fiscally challenged county government, I think the creation of a more representative, accountable and responsive county government would have the opposite result.