Washington

Group pushes to change structure of Skagit County government

A tractor pulls a wagon of vistors to Tulip Town in Skagit Valley. A group of Skagit County residents unhappy with the structure of county government hopes to open a pathway this November to have their county governed by charter, the same way Whatcom County is.
A tractor pulls a wagon of vistors to Tulip Town in Skagit Valley. A group of Skagit County residents unhappy with the structure of county government hopes to open a pathway this November to have their county governed by charter, the same way Whatcom County is. The Bellingham Herald file

A group of Skagit County residents unhappy with the structure of county government hopes to open a pathway this November to change that structure.

The group is pushing for a county charter, which can allow the county to change fundamental aspects of its government, such as the size and responsibilities of its governing board.

“A charter allows voters in the community to decide how their county government looks,” said Margery Hite, who worked as a lawyer for state and local governments.

Hite, one of the community members pushing for a county charter, tested the waters with a presentation Wednesday night to Indivisible Skagit, a local liberal activist group.

“The current system makes it hard for the best commissioner to get stuff done,” she said.

A commissioner system, the default county government in Washington, essentially combines the legislative and executive branches of government into one three-person board of commissioners.

Power is consolidated at the top, Hite said, with few checks and balances.

But under a charter, the system can be made to look more like city, state or federal governments, with a larger, more representative legislative council and a separate executive.

Hite said she would like to see seven to nine part-time council members, with an appointed executive and nonpartisan races.

She said she feels a larger group would contribute to more debate and more transparency, and having a single manager will help county offices coordinate better.

Because there are many ways a charter can dramatically change the structure of county government, there are many reasons people may consider voting for one.

“Every charter has a story behind it,” said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties.

Charters can expand representation, add more professional management to county government and open council seats to more people by making the positions part time, he said.

To let voters decide whether they want to form a committee to write a charter, advocates must collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the voter turnout for the last general election to have the proposal put on a ballot, Hite said.

In addition, 15 to 25 people who want to craft the draft charter, called freeholders, need to put their names on the ballot.

The deadline for the November ballot is Aug. 7.

If voters approve forming a committee, the freeholders who get elected will write a draft charter. Voters will have the chance to vote on it when it’s completed, Hite said.

Seven of the state’s 39 counties have charters, including Snohomish, Whatcom and San Juan.

One of the problems a charter likely wouldn’t solve, Johnson said, is Hite’s concern for transparency.

Every meeting the commissioners have, be it legislative or administrative in nature, is public, he said. But a county manager’s meeting would not be subject to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and would happen behind closed doors.

Further, a meeting between any of the three commissioners is public, because more than half the board is meeting.

With a larger council, members could talk business outside the public eye. While this would let council members express their thoughts without fear of public ridicule, it would not be more transparent.

Hite disagreed, saying holding meetings in the evening would bring more community members into discussions of policy.

A charter proposal for Skagit County was put on the ballot in November 2003, but was voted down 72 percent to 28 percent.

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