What is a Home Rule Charter and why is it right for Skagit County?

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?

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.

What changes with a charter?

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

What is the Home Rule charter process?

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.

Timeline:


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

Why change the form of Skagit County government?

Skagit County is still growing at a rapid rate, with a diversifying economy and population, and we face complex challenges – we have simply outgrown the outdated County Commissioner system. The current system is not accountable to taxpayers, and is hampered by:

A quorum of two

With a three commissioner system, any two of them constitute a quorum – just two commissioners’ votes are needed even for major decisions.3

Combined legislative and executive functions

Currently our commissioners serve as the policy setters, lawmakers and administrators. Some of this work is delegated or shared among officers, department heads and other staff. Nonetheless, the power and responsibility is concentrated at the top, with little in the way of checks and balances. The commissioners even play a quasi-judicial role, deciding land use appeals.

Too much concentrated power and responsibility

There is too much for the commissioners to oversee and to keep track of. This fosters poor accountability and a lack of coherence in the decision-making process. The sheer volume of business that the commissioners must conduct tends to stifle creativity and new initiatives, and produces a cumbersome government that is slow to respond.

What would a Skagit County charter look like?

We envision a larger part-time county council with five to seven members, with a fulltime professional county administrator appointed by the council. The reason for a hired professional administrator (instead of an elected executive) is twofold -- to take the politics out of the day-to-day business of running government, and because the county needs professional management at the highest level. The charter can specify the role, responsibilities and necessary qualifications for the county administrator. This new form of county government would:

Spread out the power

If council positions were part-time, working people who are more in touch with the community could run. A larger county council would better reflect the county’s diverse population and foster more dialogue.

Provide accessibility and transparency

A larger part-time council could meet in the evenings, allowing for more public participation. This would provide for more dialogue with the community, and transparency of decision making. Council members would be more answerable to ordinary citizens for the decisions they make.

Provide for professional management

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.

Position Skagit County for the future

Western Washington is growing and changing. The old system simply isn’t structured to handle the unprecedented challenges facing Skagit County.

Get more done

A larger, more engaged council, with members who are not saddled with administrative work can be more nimble and responsive to local needs.

Allow for initiatives and referendums

A charter is the only way to give citizens the power of initiatives and referendums at the local level. This is a powerful tool to create more responsive government, and give citizens a direct voice.

Cost less or the same

We are confident that the combined existing salaries of the county commissioners and their designated senior staff could cover part-time salaries for a larger county council and a professional appointed county administrator.

Footnotes:   3. because of ‘open meeting laws’, a quorum of the commission (any two commissioners) cannot discuss county business with each other unless it is during an advertised meeting that is open to the public. An unintended effect of this requirement is lack of coordination between commissioners, and stifling important dialogue, which can lead to poor decision making.   Would you like to learn more, or get involved?   Contact:  info@HomeRuleSkagit.org