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County voters mull charter options

On one thing at least, the leaders of Kitsap County’s Republican and Democratic parties agree.

County GOP Chair Shirley Brown and John Morgan, chair of the Democratic Central Committee, both would prefer that the proposed county charter had left the parties in politics.

Aside from that, however, the two political leaders have vastly divergent opinions of the proposed charter, which was drafted by the 21 elected members of the Board of Freeholders.

The freeholders opted to make county elected offices nonpartisan, with the exception of prosecuting attorney, which by state law must remain partisan.

Voters will decide whether to enact the charter in an all-mail election, with ballots to be counted Feb. 5. Ballots were to be mailed to county homes today, Jan. 16.

If approved, the charter would drastically alter the county’s elections system – including the how and when of elections.

DISTRICT OR

COUNTYWIDE?

During the freeholders’ year of deliberations, the most heated debates were over how the five members of a proposed new county council should be elected.

Linda Webb, the chair of the freeholders and a charter proponent, told a Jan. 12 League of Women Voters forum that “For me, that’s the biggest issue.”

Currently, county commissioners are nominated in district-only balloting, but elected countywide. The charter would make all council elections district-only affairs (voters would be asked if they want to switch back to the current system in a November 2003 referendum).

Depending on whom you ask, the proposed change either increases or decreases representation, and either brings balance back to county politics or represents a Republican power grab.

County residents currently vote for, and hence are represented by, all three commissioners, charter opponents argue. Under the charter, county residents would vote for, and be represented by, only one council member.

Charter opponents view that as a decrease in representation.

“There’s no incentive for council members to advocate for citizens outside of their district” under the charter, opponent Christine Nasser said at Saturday’s forum.

Such a system would “encourage a whole system of back-room deals and pork-barrel politics where nobody considers the good of the whole.”

Charter backers point out that four of Washington’s five home rule counties chose district-only elections. Proponents also argue that the charter would improve representation, because council members would be more attuned to the interests of their districts.

“It might be possible for the real serious issues to be addressed if we have district-only elections. These five people might actually represent the concerns of their constituencies,” said Brown, the county Republican chair.

A QUESTION OF POWER

As an example, Brown uses the 1998 Central Kitsap commissioner election. The Republican nominee, Carl Johnson, earned more votes in Central Kitsap, but Tim Botkin won the countywide election.

“Commissioner District 3 did not vote for the sitting commissioner,” Brown said. “He lost his home district. The people who voted him in are the ones who he pays attention to.”

To Democratic chair Morgan, such comments indicate a hidden agenda behind the charter movement.

“The Board of Freeholders was essentially controlled by a group of partisans — Republicans and developers,” he said. “They are only interested in trying to foist upon the public a charter that represents their own interest groups.”

Brown said party records indicate only seven of the 21 freeholders were Republicans.

“The freeholders were truly nonpartisan,” former freeholder Jack Hamilton told the Jan. 12 forum. Gaining an election edge “never entered our minds.”

Nonetheless, charter proponents don’t hide their desire to bring balance to a courthouse dominated by Democrats. Of the 10 countywide elected officials, only three — Commissioner Jan Angel, Assessor Jim Avery and Coroner Greg Sandstrom — are Republicans.

Morgan said that’s because GOP candidates tend to be too conservative for politically moderate Kitsap.

Others claim the Democratic political dominance can be traced to the east side of the Agate Pass Bridge.

Hamilton said under the current system, a “huge power voting block” — Bainbridge Island — overrides local voting interests.

Matt Ryan, a former freeholder and GOP county commissioner, said he grew up in an Republican-dominated East Coast community. Graft and corruption there taught him “things go rotten” when one party is in power too long.

“If we stick with our current system, we’re going to have a one-party government,” said Ryan, who once blamed his 1996 loss to Chris Endresen in a race for commissioner on heavily Democratic Bainbridge voters. “If we go with the charter, (elected officials) are going to reflect their communities.”

NONPARTISAN, WITH A CATCH

Charter opponents claim nonpartisan elections could cause confusion among voters, who might not know candidates’ stands on issues.

Nasser, a Bainbridge resident, said that “the current political parties will still be working in the county.” But because the charter would implement nonpartisan elections, voters wouldn’t always be certain who’s a Republican and who’s a Democrat.

Ryan argues that district-only elections would mean people essentially would be voting for their neighbors, and would know where they stand on important issues. Hamilton pointed out that the provision was based in part on a poll by the Sun newspaper, in which 60 percent of respondents supported nonpartisan elections.

Political parties, opponents argue, provide a framework for voters to make decisions on candidates.

“The voter shouldn’t have the burden of trying to figure out what your politics are when thy go in and punch the ballot,” said Morgan, adding that the term nonpartisan elections is oxymoronic.

County commissioners Jan Angel and Chris Endresen both told the freeholders during their deliberations that party politics are irrelevant to most of their work.

“Most of what I did as a county commissioner, there wasn’t anything partisan about it. You’re providing a service to people,” Ryan said. “When you’re deciding how big to build a culvert so that salmon can get through, there’s no Republican or Democratic plank on that.”

The charter calls for nonpartisan elections in part because freeholders wanted to make county government accessible to federal employees. The Hatch Act restricts federal government employees from running for partisan political offices.

To run for a county office under the current system, federal workers first would have to resign their jobs.

“It’s really, really unfair to ask a person to give up his job just so he can run for a job in Kitsap County government,” said Hamilton, a retired Navy officer.

Morgan also is a retired Navy officer, but he called the Hatch Act issue a “red herring.” He said the real point of nonpartisan elections was to get more conservatives elected, without being branded Republican in a predominantly Democratic county. The election of the freeholders — who ran without partisan affiliation — foreshadows what could happen under the charter, he said.

“Nobody had to run and show their politics,” Morgan said. “Had they had to show their politics, we would have had a totally different makeup on that freeholders board.”

ODD-YEAR ELECTIONS

The Democratic leader also sees partisan overtones in a charter plank that moves most elections to odd-numbered years (the new position of county executive, and the prosecuting attorney, would be elected in even years under the charter).

Under the current system, county elections are conducted in even-numbered years, at the same time as state and national elections.

Morgan said odd-year elections traditionally lead to lower voter turnout — and “it’s a matter of fact … that off-year elections generate more Republicans.”

Freeholders said odd-year elections would call more attention to county offices, which tend to get lost in the political clutter created by legislative, gubernatorial, congressional and presidential elections.

Ryan said odd-year elections would provide more “political oxygen” for candidates. Campaign donations also likely would go up locally, he said, if county offices weren’t competing with state and national candidates for attention.

For charter opponent Jim Sharpe, this is not a debatable issue.

“It will decrease participation,” he said. “There’s no ‘if.’ Participation between even years and odd years goes down significantly.”

During deliberations, freeholders said conducting elections in odd-numbered years would move county issues to the “top of the ballot.”

Former freeholder Sherry Appleton, who opposes the charter, said that’s not literally true. Statewide ballot initiatives will remain at the physical top of the ballot.

Appleton, a legislative lobbyist, said odd-year elections would put power in the hands of political interest groups.

“It opens it up to special interest groups, on both sides,” the Poulsbo resident said. “It really means that if you put a lot of money into an election, you can have a lot of influence.”

Auditor Karen Flynn, the county’s chief election official for 15 years, said history indicates that voter participation will decline if elections are moved to odd-numbered years.

She cites King County as an example. In 2000 — a legislative, congressional and presidential election year — about 79 percent of King County voters cast ballots. In 2001 — which featured races for county exective, several county council seats and Seattle mayor — about 46 percent of King County voters cast ballots.

Flynn also said odd-year elections will be more expensive, and pointed out that voter registration soars during even-numbered years.

The auditor mentioned those points at a freeholder meeting last fall.

“I thought I was giving them objective information,” she said. “I think there were other reasons they want elections to be in the odd year, so they just rationalized.”

Brown said she’d like to see the crystal ball charter opponents use to predict future election turnouts. Having county elections on odd-year ballots will drive turnout up, she said.

“Their argument doesn’t hold water here,” Brown said. “We simply just don’t know.”

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