Citizens group seeking charter for Jefferson County
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Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
Jefferson County Auditor Donna Eldridge helps Val James Tuesday at the Jefferson County Courthouse.

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — A citizens group seeking to change Jefferson County government from a commission to a “home rule” charter system submitted a petition Tuesday calling for the election of freeholders, which is the first step in the charter process.

“This will allow us to better govern ourselves,” said Norm Norton, spokesman for the Community Rights Coalition of Jefferson County, which gave the petition to the Jefferson County Auditor's Office.

“It will allow us to create a bill of rights for local citizens in dealing with the county government and serve as a bulwark against corporations that would destroy our pristine environment.”

Home rule charters are permitted by the state constitution as a way counties can provide their own form of government that may be different from the commission form prescribed by state law.

Neighboring Clallam County is one of six counties out of the state's 39 with a charter system. Unlike other charter counties, which adopted a council-executive form of government, Clallam kept a three-member county commission.

Home rule charters also can provide the powers of initiative and referendum to the citizens of the county. All charter counties have adopted initiative and referendum powers.

About 30 members of the group seeking to change Jefferson County to a charter system were at the Auditor's Office at 9 a.m. Tuesday to submit the petition.

They said the petition had 2,500 names at arrival but gathered a few more signatures outside the county courthouse.

The deadline for submitting signatures for the Nov. 5 ballot consideration is Monday, Auditor Donna Eldridge said.

Norton said the group's goal in creating a charter is to develop a county bill of rights and build an initiative process that would allow more citizen input into the workings of county government.

But the content of the charter depends on the freeholders, who are delegates who shepherd the process.

“We are not looking to overthrow county government,” Norton said.

“This is a well-operated, well-run county we have here, and we don't want to change a lot, aside from adding the power of the initiative.”

Norton said it is possible that the freeholders will not follow his blueprint and choose to create a charter that has more significant governmental changes.

The next step toward placing the measure on the Nov. 5 general election ballot is for the Auditor's Office to verify the petition's signatures and determine whether they meet the threshold of 2,010 valid signatures, which is 10 percent of the votes cast in the last election.

If it is put before voters in November, the voters will face two measures on the ballot, the first to determine whether a board of freeholders who would develop the charter should be created, according to the Washington State Constitution.

If that is defeated by a simple majority, the second part of the ballot question — the election of the 15 freeholders — would be moot.

After signatures are verified, county commissioners would determine specifics of the next steps in the process, such as district boundaries for the freeholders and when to schedule a three-day special filing period for freeholder candidates.

Since measures to create parks districts in Kala Point and Port Ludlow will be on the ballot, a single period would be scheduled to accommodate all three measures, Eldridge said.

Once created, a board of 15 freeholders would meet to write the charter, which would be presented to the voters at a future election.

Norton said he would like to see the charter on the November 2014 ballot.

“When they develop the charter, it will go to the voters for ratification,” Norton said.

“If it's a bad charter, they will vote it down,” he added. “If it's a bad charter, I will vote against it.”

County Administrator Philip Morley said, “The voters will get two bites at the apple.

“First, they will make a decision whether they want to elect a board of freeholders to create a charter, and a year or so down the road, they will get to approve or vote down a specific charter.”

Morley has worked for both charter and non-charter counties but cannot compare the two structures “because it depends on the charter.”

Home rule charters cannot affect the election of the prosecuting attorney, the county superintendent of schools, the judges of the Superior Court or the jurisdiction of the courts, according to the state.

Other than those offices, charters can provide for any county officers deemed necessary to perform county functions. For instance, the Clallam County charter — alone in the nation — designates the Department of Community Development director as an elected position.

Clallam County adopted its charter in 1979 and has amended it several times since. Other charter counties are King (adopted in 1969), Pierce (1981), Snohomish (1980), Whatcom (1979) and San Juan (2005).

Another group of residents attempted to gather enough signatures for a charter system election in 2010 and 2011.

Morley said details about this most recent effort will be put on a commissioners' agenda sometime in August.

Morley said the county government would stay neutral during the process.

“Our job is to help to facilitate the process,” he said. “We want to give the freeholders as much information as possible about how county government is structured now so they can make informed decisions.”



Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 30. 2013 6:19PM
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