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Debates on county charter heating up

In a debate that seemed unlikely to change many minds, opponents of the proposed Kitsap County charter argued Thursday night that the document is a prescription for bad government, while supporters claimed it is the county’s chance to free itself from the shackles of a century-old system.

“The real question here is whether we want our own form of government, or whether we want to be dictated by a 100-year-old statute,” said Linda Webb of Port Orchard, speaking in favor of the document.

But Christine Nasser, Bainbridge Island city council member, called the charter “a bad deal for Bainbridge Island and for the county.”

Rather than refute arguments against the charter point by point, the supporters pointed to the flexibility a charter gives the county.

“These are details,” Webb said, “and there are seven ways in the charter to change things that don’t work.”

The forum on the charter, sponsored by the Kitsap County League of Women Voters, drew some 65 people to the Bainbridge High School auditorium Thursday night. And from the nature of the written questions submitted from the floor, it appeared that most of the attendees were intending to bolster their strongly held position, rather than seeking information that might change their minds.

The charter – a “constitution” for Kitsap County – was drafted by 21 freeholders who were elected last November. If adopted by a majority of voters, the charter will dictate Kitsap County’s form of government, replacing the state statute that controls county government in non-charter counties.

Ballots for the mail-only election will go out next week, and must be returned on or before Feb. 5.

The charter replaces the three county commissioners and a county administrator that the commissioners appoint with a five-member county council and an independent elected executive. It allows citizens to enact legislation through initiative petitions, and to put ordinances to a vote of the people through a referendum.

In Nasser’s view, the charter is an unnecessarily radical solution to a simple problem.

“The problem is that Kitsap County is too big to be governed by three commissioners,” she said. But rather than simply addressing that problem, she said, the charter dilutes representation through district-only elections, places too much power in the hands of a county executive makes initiatives and referendums too easy.

Under the charter, a petition signed by 250 voters can suspend an ordinance for at least 90 days to give opponents time to collect signatures on a referendum petition. If they collect signatures equal to 4 percent of those who voted for governor at the last election – just over 4,000 signatures – the issue goes on the ballot.

“With the home builders, the environmentalists, the property-rights advocates, the partisan Democrats and Republicans, stopping ordinances with 250 signatures is a recipe for chaos,” said Jim Sharpe, a Democratic Party leader who spoke in opposition to the charter.

But Webb said that if one accepts the principle of initiative and referendum, the triggering thresholds must be low enough that citizens can resort to those measures in fact. And she repeated that the threshold numbers were subject to change.

The mode of electing council members – a hot-button issue throughout the drafting process – continued to draw numerous questions.

At present, commission candidates must live in the district they are seeking to represent, and in any primary election, voting is limited to residents of that district.

But in the general election, all county voters vote for all commissioners, a provision that some freeholders have acknowledged is an attempt to dilute the perceived bloc vote from Bainbridge Island.

“Splitting the county into five districts will divide communities,” Sharpe said, claiming that any redistricting plan will either split part of the area surrounding Poulsbo from the city itself or will isolate a portion of the north Kitsap Peninsula from the rest.

But Jack Hamilton, a Silverdale freeholder who spoke in favor of the charter, said that numerous polls showed strong popular support for district-only elections. And Webb noted that the charter requires a vote on the election-method question in 2003.

Summing up, Webb hammered the theme that the charter “gives us flexibility, and if we don’t like it, we can change it.”

That’s not good enough, Nasser said. Responding to a question of whether the panelists would personally run for county council, Nasser said, “It would be an honor to represent Bainbridge Island, but I think this government would be so dysfunctional that it would be an exercise in futility.”

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