Only seven counties in Washington State have adopted the charter system of government. Seven out of 39 is almost 18% which is not an amount that signifies a large interest in this governing format statewide. The majority of residents of the 32 traditional counties see no advantage in changing their style of local governing. In fact, an argument can be made the charter system is not a good fit for the seven which adopted it. Charter counties become expensive in increased salary costs, bureaucracy laden, and less responsive to constituents.
That makes the current effort to gather enough signatures to put a charter county amendment on November’s ballot in Skagit County a bit curious, unless you understand the history and motivation behind it. A group of radical and vocal environmentalists, living mostly in Mt Vernon and Anacortes, are extremely angry with Skagit’s three county commissioners. Why? Because they haven’t got their way on a handful of issues the commissioners either ruled on or because the commissioners didn’t follow the green agenda.
First of those was the commissioners strong opposition to the relocation of grizzly bears to the North Cascades National Park and Snoqualmie National Forest. Skagit’s commissioners, one of whom is from Alaska and understands thoroughly the danger presented by these apex predators, opted for the safety of their constituents, livestock and pets who live in the eastern part of the county over some vague notion of making nature whole to mimic pre-human contact once again. Grizzlies have been proven to range 200 miles and do not recognize manmade boundaries.
Frustrated, the radical environmentalists’ next target was a DC lobbyist, who, by most accounts, has served the county well. However, he did represent the interests of the county as determined by the commissioners and he didn’t march to the beat of the environmentalist drum. Thus the demand to fire him. The radicals became even more incensed when the commissioners agreed to a local refinery’s upgrade. Most, if not all the environmental cartel, want fossil fuels left in the ground. Along with a couple of other disagreements and complaints, that was just too much for these people.
What to do? Their answer was to fundamentally change the structure of the county government. Knowing they had little chance of voting any of the current commissioners out of office – the two up for election in 2016 had no opposition just as the one up for election this year is not opposed - they decided their agenda would be better served by switching from three commissioners to seven or nine council members. The increased salaries for this concept would be a fiscal burden few taxpayers would appreciate in a county already strapped for revenue - a result caused in large part by actions and litigation by the environmetal cartel.
To build support, the radicals visited like minded organizations, presenting their reasons for making the change. First and foremost was that Skagit had reached a population tipping point and three commissioners are unable to keep up with the workload. Latest estimates are around 125,000 people live in the county. That argument is countered by the fact that much larger counties have retained the traditional system and are managed just as well as or better than King, Snohomish and Whatcom. Examples are Kitsap and Thurston which have twice the population and Spokane which has four times as many people.
They claimed that seven or nine council members would provide better representation. However, invariably, rural residents whose only local government is the county, lose out because left of center urban populations with vastly different interests overwhelm the rural population during elections as has happened in King and Whatcom. Seattle and Bellingham control those two counties. A friend from Whatcom says that county has been in a constant state of turmoil since it transitioned to the charter structure years ago. King County has become a befuddled behemoth that cannot function well enough to serve the rural population even if it were to attempt to do so.
Finally, the fact that charter counties tend to become more expensive and more bloated is ignored. That has been the pattern in almost all of them. Along with increasing the number of elected officials and the accompanying staff who decide on policies and make rules, these folks typically attempt to pack the Freeholders committee which determines the county charter and new districts. They often succeed, resulting in a government that favors environmental and other left of center interests at the expense of farmers and rural property owners. Economic prosperity, especially for rural, but also for urban citizens suffers as policies and agendas proliferate driven by governance devised in charter counties.
Becoming a charter county is not a good fit for Skagit. Other counties have rejected it as Skagit did in 2003 by a vote of 72% to 28%. Let’s hope the same level of sanity prevails again this time.