Changing a county form of government from the original commission form to a home rule charter may sound like a good idea at times, but history shows it will likely result in less accountability, larger bureaucracy, failed political science experiments and higher taxes.
The commission form of government was made standard by Article 11, section 5 of the Washington State Constitution. Counties may now opt to change their form to a "home rule" charter. The process is allowed and defined in the Washington State Constitution under Article 11, section 4.
A group in Thurston County, called "Better Thurston," is hoping to change the county's form of government. Proponents of a new charter in Thurston County say a charter is the ultimate expression of democracy; a new government formed by citizens. They have also expressed the need to "modernize" government, make it more "professional" or give more or different representation.
But would changing the form of government improve government? It's hard to say what effect a charter in Thurston County will have because it's not written yet. It's one of the leaps of faith groups promoting a charter ask the voter to take. Remember what Nancy Pelosi said about the Obamacare bill: "We have to pass the bill so you can find out what's in it." That's nearly the same with the charter process—you must travel well down the road before a charter is written, and by then, so much time and effort is invested it's impossible to stop the process.
There are seven counties that have adopted home rule charters. To be sure, there were many promises made before these passed, and many disappointments once they did. By examining these counties, we can get a glimpse into what Thurston County could expect if it adopted a charter.
Although the three commissioners hold a vast amount of power in a commission form of government, the voters are able to hold them accountable for their actions. That may not be the case with a charter county. Some charter counties have an unelected county executive, and much of the commissioner power is delegated to this person. It is very difficult to change an unelected bureaucrat once they are appointed. Additionally, the Washington State Constitution allows legislative powers to be delegated. "The legislative authority may by resolution delegate any of its executive or administrative powers, authority or duties not expressly vested in specific officers by the charter to any county officer or officers or county employee or employees." Article XI, Section 4. Over time, new county councilors become more ceremonial in nature and their power will be absorbed by the bureaucracy thereby rendering less accountability to the voters.
Higher Taxes and Spending
In a recent study of taxes and spending conducted by the Freedom Foundation, the two worst-performing counties were charter counties. The worst county—by an order of magnitude—was King County, which has been chartered since 1969 and is the state's oldest charter county.
King County has racked up astounding debt and has the highest per capita taxes in the state. While the form of government does not guarantee higher taxes, if King is any indication, taxpayers should certainly hold onto their wallets.
Home rule charters tend to empower and grow the bureaucracy. The seven charter counties have eliminated elected positions such as treasurer, clerks, and medical examiners and made them appointed positions.
Diminished Property Rights
In a recent study of property rights conducted by the Freedom Foundation, the four worst-performing counties were all charter counties. They are Pierce, King, Snohomish and Whatcom. Each of these counties received a combined grade of "F" when ranked on six different property rights criteria.
The best-performing charter counties were San Juan, Clallam and Clark, counties which received a "B", "C" and "C," respectively. All "A" and all other "B" counties were non-charter counties with the original commission form of government.
Changing the form of government from a commission to charter does not suggest improved property rights—it virtually guarantees their destruction.
Experiments in Political Science
Nobody would think having an even number of elected officials would be a good idea, but when San Juan County approved its charter, it did so with six councilors. The even number created bad consequences like gridlock votes and minority quorums. Finally, San Juan County amended its charter and now has three county councilors.
One of the most important elected officials is the auditor—the person responsible for overseeing elections. When King County approved its charter, the auditor was appointed, not elected. History has shown that King County had the most corrupt elections office in the state, and finally King County voters had enough. They amended their charter and returned to electing the county auditor.
Charters aren't perfect instruments when they are created, and here are at least two examples of failed political science experiments. How many experiments are Thurston County residents willing to endure?
Who promotes Charters and Why?
Typically, charters are promoted by elected officials who have a desire to climb the political ladder, and creating a charter county (adding elected positions) is a way for them to do just that. The spokesperson for Better Thurston is Jim Cooper, a current city councilman from Olympia. He would be eligible to run for a newly created seat at the county level if the charter is successful.
A lesson from Clark County
Tracy Wilson, a Clark County freeholder said there was a great opportunity in Clark County to create a good charter. But he details why that didn't happen, and how it turned out. Watch the video here.