Opinion

King County Charter review: The good, bad and ugly | Column

Last week, we looked at many of the King County Charter Review Commission’s recommendations that are under review by the King County Council.

Today, we will look at the rest of the issues.

The proposed amendment to establish additional protection for 100,000 acres of open space has already drawn some opposition. The minority report and some media comments don’t question the idea, only whether or not a review of the charter is the appropriate venue for this discussion. If it makes the ballot, it will likely pass, but charter review is usually intended to look at structural King County improvements — not policy initiatives.

One of the recommendations that you should take a closer look at is the provision that requires the county executive to “garner the consent of the separately elected official” whose labor contract is being negotiated by the executive. Under the current alignment, the executive negotiates all labor contracts, including those of the assessor and the sheriff

The sheriff is really the issue. Both of our recently elected sheriffs have advocated for the ability to negotiate contracts with their own employees. At the heart of the issue is the perception that the executive can agree to things the sheriff may not like. The sheriff argues that this undermines her ability to discipline or hold accountable her employees.

On the surface, the sheriff’s viewpoint would seem to have merit. On the other hand, some worry that if the sheriff is directly responsible for labor contracts, he or she could find themselves in politically awkward positions if the union isn’t happy at election time, particularly since the most likely source of an election opponent is a visible union member.

Lastly, opponents argue that the executive as the chief manager of the county budget needs the latitude to control expenditures that another separately elected official might not feel compelled to control.

The sheriff also presented several other amendments that would further separate her office from the rest of county government — and take another step back toward the old commission form of government the public rejected when it established the office of executive.

The commission seems to have concluded that this difference of opinion was less about structural relations and more about altering necessarily intertwined professional relationships and personalities. Their compromise of “consent of the separately elected official” brings the King County Council in as arbitrator of any disputes, which presents a whole new set of problems.

Much of the whole issue could be avoided by the council using its current authority on the front end of the collective bargaining process to set guidelines.

The minority report on this issue includes the two co-chairs Democrat Mike Lowry and Republican Lois North. Both know county government.

This was one of the more hotly debated issues and one you will hear a lot more about, so listen carefully and look beneath the surface.

Another issue that looks good on the surface is a recommendation that a high level position be created in the executive’s office to represent the interests of unincorporated area residents.

Unincorporated residents have felt for a long time that their voices and generally rural residency have given them less service and less ability to influence county government. Many opponents and students of county government argue that these residents are correct. However, they also argue that that’s the way it should be. If the county provides a higher or urban level of service to unincorporated areas, urban city residents are probably going to pay a disproportionate level of the cost.

Opponents further argue that the county is or should be a regional government, and if residents don’t want a lower or “rural” level of service, they should incorporate or annex. This proposal would only continue the bifurcated county role.

Further, opponents argue that establishing a position in the executive’s office only gives an appearance of impact and reinforces an out-of-date policy direction.

They believe the position would be a waste of the $150,000 salary. Also they ask: “Isn’t representation what their county council member is supposed to be doing?”

There are two charter amendments on budget allotments and transitory provisions that are non-controversial.

The last two items are non-charter suggestions for future ballot consideration.

The commission would like the county to form a committee in 2010 to take a look at instant run-off voting.

Lastly, what has been a behind the scenes but growing issue is the management and operation of the county library system. The commission and even some ardent library supporters are starting to wonder if this separate allegedly non-political system shouldn’t receive closer scrutiny.

Overall, the Charter Review Commission did a lot of good thoughtful work. Now it’s up to the King County Council and, ultimately, the voters.

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

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