Changing the process of electing county commissioners to a system in which candidates are nominated at the district level and elected via countywide vote drew the most discussion by Clallam County Charter Review Commission members during a Sept. 22 forum.
The potential change is one of six proposed amendments to the Clallam County Home Rule Charter that will appear on the ballot in the Nov. 3 general election.
Charter Review Commission member and city of Forks attorney/planner Rod Fleck and Charter Review Commission co-chair Norma Turner discussed the pros and cons of three of the amendments during the hour-long debate sponsored by the Port Angeles Business Association.
Fleck and Turner debated the countywide election proposal after quick discussion of Amendment 1, which asks voters if the office of the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney should be a non-partisan office, and Amendment 2, which would insert the word “county” before commissioners to clarify which commissioners are being referenced.
Turner sponsored the amendment to move back to countywide commissioner elections, the system by which Clallam County elected commissioners until a charter amendment in 2015. Her arguments to approve the change back to electing district-nominated commissioners countywide centered on voter disenfranchisement and the perception of a lack of accountability by commissioners to non-district constituents.
“We now have a Board of Commissioners that have been elected by a minority in all of their elections,” Turner said.
“District 2 (Central Commissioner Randy Johnson) was elected in 2016 with only 16 percent of the total votes cast in that election. The commissioner in District 3 (West Commissioner Bill Peach) in 2018 received 13 percent of the total. District 1 (East Commissioner Mark Ozias) in 2019 had 24 percent of the total votes.”
Turner also stated that all other county elected offices, such as auditor and treasurer, are elected by voters throughout the county.
“Everyone else who is elected and serves the county in the county courthouse, they are elected countywide,” Turner said. “Our other countywide commissioners are our port commissioners, and they are elected countywide. I don’t know why commissioners should be made this special entity. It’s difficult to have county commissioners working with their peers who have garnered 50 or 60 percent of the vote, and they only have received 13 or 17 percent of the vote.
“My argument is that, when people are elected with the minority of the vote and they go and make decisions for us, it feels undemocratic.”
Speaking against the change, Fleck repeatedly pointed out that 63 percent of voters chose the elect-by-district method in 2015 and that the move to district-only elections actually increased voter representation countywide.
“This is trying to say you got it wrong, voters,” Fleck said. “And you didn’t really understand the ramifications, the implications and the impact, and I disagree, that we didn’t want to be at the forefront of fair, healthy and empowering elections, and my colleagues and I disagree.
In evaluating the changes since 2015, Fleck said he has seen commissioners work together more and the perception that Port Angeles is the seat of all county election power, lowered.
“What it has done is carried a little more collaboration watching the board of commissioners, and cooperation,” Fleck said. “And it ended the attitude that, if Port Angeles wants this, that’s the way the county should go. (Before) PA West, not the city of PA, the Port Angeles region as PA central was its own district, and PA East pretty much decided who was going to be the county commissioner. And the nomination in the district primary was kind of perfunctory in many instances, at least in my 25 years here.”
Fleck said the potential change is driven by those who support candidates that have drawn little interest on the West End.
“I haven’t heard that other than a group of folks who couldn’t get their people elected out west, and that’s why they want the change.”
Turner responded by saying district boundaries “are not static things, they change with every census.”
“I hear a lot about how Port Angeles runs the world,” Turner said. “If you look at the three districts, from Valley Street west, it is District 3. Look at the three districts in 2020, the line will move significantly east because the largest voting bloc is in Sequim. It’s not in Port Angeles.”