The charter amendment to make King County government non-partisan and add the director of elections to the separately elected ranks follows closely on the heels of reducing the King County Council and electing, rather than appointing, the sheriff.
These two initiatives have caused people to ask, What kind of county government do we want? What effect do all these piecemeal ideas really have?
Back in the 1960s, when county government was run by a board of commissioners and several separately elected office holders had their own fiefdoms, a series of scandals brought up the same question. The Municipal League of King County and the League of Women Voters and others marshaled enough support to establish a board of freeholders to write a county charter, which the voters adopted.
In 1969, almost 40 years ago, the voters had a collective vision of what they wanted: A county council and a single strong county executive. The prosecuting attorney, technically a state position, and the assessor remain separately elected, but the public wanted a central point of accountability.
Under the best circumstances, county government is a Byzantine world where public policy and political needs are frequently pitted against each other. There is always more going on below the surface than above, which makes writing this column considerably more interesting than it should be.
The proposition to elect the sheriff, rather than have the county executive appoint one, was put on the ballot by those who wanted to attract conservative voters to the polls for a particular election. A welcome ally was the sheriff’s union, which felt they would have more say with a boss who had to raise money and seek their endorsement than one who didn’t. Under those circumstances, their opinion would hold a lot more weight. They were right — it does.
Also, the public believes substituting its judgment on who to elect rather than have a professional national search is preferable even though the talent pool is limited by geographic borders. The same will be true of an elected Elections Director. A smart county executive would seek input from affected stakeholders, but it would be part of a process, not part of a political campaign. When the sheriff’s union felt slighted by the county council, they put together a ballot proposal to reduce the council from 13 members to 9.
Presented the opportunity to personally cut county government, voters jumped at the chance. At the same time, they forgot that one of the original reasons for increasing the size was to spread political power more evenly across the region and increase the public’s ability to influence their individual council members.
The vote to cut the council may not have actually been in the public’s own best interests. At the same time, we have a county library system that does not answer directly to anyone we vote for and who many feel is a shadow government lacking accountability.
Have we in our zeal for control, for self-empowerment over events, really looked at the full impact of our decisions? Or has this haphazard approach to county government really given political power to groups who would like to influence particular county departments?
Many, including some members of the charter review commission and other good government groups, would argue that the balkanization of county government has really taken us “back to the future” and we may find ourselves repeating history by fracturing a cohesive government and setting the stage for future problems.
We tend to think “quick fix” and we think in election cycles. Shouldn’t we think in generational cycles?
As you go to the polls, think about your vision of what kind of county government you want for the future.
Do you want it to look like the one you rejected 40 years ago? Is it time to look at county government as a whole, and make informed decisions, or was Pogo right? “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.