A Home Rule charter is a way for voters to modernize their county government to a system more responsive to local needs. A new form of government can be created that would reflect the county’s diverse population, provide meaningful public participation, support accountability and transparency of decision making, and result in a County Council that is more responsive and effective.
What is Skagit County’s current system? Skagit County government is currently run by three elected
fulltime County Commissioners who serve as both the executive and legislative branches of our local
government. This system of governance is the ‘default’ model for counties in Washington State. It has
remained essentially unchanged since statehood (1889). Among the seven northwestern counties along the
1-5 corridor only Skagit and Island Counties still use this system1. Our population has doubled in the
past forty years to more than 120,000 people. Three commissioners now oversee a county government with
an annual budget of approximately $215,000,000. They are responsible for 650 employees and more than
700 contracts at any one time.
Skagit County government is responsible for many things that affect our daily lives including: county roads, public health and safety, emergency services, school funding, parks, flood control, zoning, land use, environmental regulation, farmland preservation, solid waste, and the list goes on. Just three commissioners oversee all of this. And, they are the representatives who coordinate county policies with city, state, tribal and federal governments.
The charter process is the only way voters can choose a new form of county government. Most counties have chosen to create an elected county council with 5 to 9 members and an executive administrator to oversee the operation of county government. The charter can also change which county officers, such as Auditor and Assessor are elected (versus appointed); except for a few offices such as prosecuting attorney and superior court judges, which always remain elected positions. A charter can also create new offices, such as a ‘Public Advocate’ designed to help citizens bring issues before the council to foster more effective public involvement. A charter can also provide for local voter-led initiatives and referendums (which all counties with charters have decided to do).2
The Washington State Constitution allows for citizens to petition for a Home Rule Charter. If enough signatures are collected, the question of the charter then goes to voters in a two-step process. The first vote is to approve or reject starting the charter process, and to select a slate of citizens called “freeholders”. If starting a charter is approved, then the elected freeholders are authorized to work on a proposal for a charter. Their proposal will describe a new structure for county governance. A second vote is then held, and the citizens of the county decide whether or not to adopt the proposed charter.
Footnotes: 1. Whatcom, Snohomish, King, San Juan and Pierce Counties have all adopted charters.
2. Municipal Research Service Center: http://mrsc.org/ Would you like to learn more, or get involved? Contact: info@HomeRuleSkagit.org