King County charter: Good ideas vs. naive ideas

For those of you who missed it, the King County Council was in town recently.

The council is holding a series of public hearings to gather input as council members consider the recommendations of the Charter Review Commission.

The King County charter, which is like a constitution, is reviewed by a group of knowledgeable citizens every 10 years. The King County Council can then decide if it wants to put any of the items on the ballot for public consideration.

The commission is co-chaired by former Democratic Governor Mike Lowry, who served on the council prior to being elected to Congress and then the governorship. The other co-chair is former Republican King County Council member Lois North.

The 21-member group has representatives from all council districts who bring different, but knowledgeable, perspectives on how county government can improve its structure.

The commission has forwarded a list of 10 proposed charter amendments to the county council, two technical amendments and two additional non-charter, but significant issues, to be considered in the future. We will look at half the list this week, and the other half next week.

Overall, the commission members did a good job, and their interest clearly shows in “good government” concepts as the end result. However, it also reveals in a couple of areas some naive ideas on how their thoughts might ultimately play out if approved by the council and voters.

We’ll start with the easy ones.

The recommended prohibition of discrimination on sexual orientation; the addition of 20 extra days to the council’s annual budget deliberations; more deadlines for submitting local ballot measures and the adjustment in membership and authority of the regional committees, which include suburban city representatives, should all be non-controversial.

The recommended increase in the signature gathering threshold to 20 percent for initiatives acknowledges voters’ concern that the initiative process has become more about special interest political gain than independent citizen authority to petition its government for changes. This will likely pass.

The commission also sought to clarify the process of appointment and confirmation of future commission membership. But the important piece of this amendment is to ensure that the county council debates and decides commission recommendations in an open public meeting. If you’re still awake at this point, you may wonder why that would be necessary. Isn’t that always how the public business gets decided?

The answer is yes and no. Some get a hearing and are referred to the ballot for the public’s consideration. Others go the way of the matching sock I can never find and evaporate into thin air. Those tend to be the more thorny political ones.

Somewhere behind the scenes, a majority of the council simply decides they don’t like something and it never shows up again. This is a small change that is long overdue — whether it will actually work is another matter.

The last one for today is a recommendation to allow the county council to establish additional qualifications for separately elected officials who head charter-based departments.

A provision exists to add qualifications for sheriff, so this would add the assessor and a new position of elections director if the public votes to change that position from appointed to elected, as many anticipate. The commission’s worry is that an unqualified person may get elected to public office. “Gosh, could that really happen?” you might ask.

Yes, and it probably will. The commission’s intent is to minimize that outcome. Some good government types would like to see the position of elections director remain appointed in King County so that a national search of qualified candidates establishes the talent pool. The option before the public of electing the position limits the talent pool to well-known King County residents, likely meaning current or wannabe politicians.

However, many would argue that having the county council decide those qualifications may only invite politics of a different type. They ask, “Would the county council resist the temptation to help or hurt favored or unfavored candidates by how they structure the qualifications?” Some might argue that a non-political independent body should be found to take on this task.

Next week, we’ll take up the rest of the commission’s recommendations.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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