By Steve Erickson
The Nov. 9 editorial (“Island County election winners represent their own voters”) opines that election of county commissioners should be by district “even if it requires a change in state law.” It doesn’t require a change in state law and has been proposed before in Island County.
The Washington Constitution provides for a “one-kind-fits-all” county government structure. All of the counties in Washington automatically assumed this structure upon statehood. This is the three commissioners elected at large system. The Constitution also provides for counties to adopt “home rule charters.” This involves electing a board of 15 to 25 freeholders who draft a proposed charter which requires a majority vote of the electorate to be adopted.
As early as 1968 the Camano Chamber of Commerce proposed the county undertake this process. While most of the counties in Washington still use the default three commissioners system, the minority of counties which have adopted home rule charters comprise the majority of the state’s population.
The last time an attempt was made to change Island County’s governmental structure was in 1995. I was one of the elected freeholders. The charter we drafted following numerous hearings throughout the county included election by district as proposed in the Nov. 9 editorial, a council-manager form of government such as is used by Whatcom County, and initiative and referendum at the county level. The proposed charter was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters following a negative campaign led by the Republican Party establishment.
I wish I could say that the campaign against the charter was based on disagreement with the proposed election by district, council-manager form of government or initiative and referendum power. However, the primary objection of the anti-campaign was a small provision that said the county wouldn’t discriminate in hiring because of race, religion and — horrors — sexual orientation. Longtime residents may remember the flaming pink “vote no” signs that were plastered along the highway. Ironically, from at least 1988 to the present, Island County has never discriminated in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. If this has happened, I’m not aware of it.
In retrospect, I think that blowing the gay-bashing dog whistle was just a convenient way for the opposition movers and shakers to activate the bigot vote. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe that the Republican establishment of the time gave a rat’s posterior about “transvestites marching on the courthouse,” as one of the county commissioners was heard to fearfully worry about. At that time the conservative Oak Harbor vote was sufficient to reliably assure that Republican commissioners were always elected from South-Central Whidbey and Camano Island. And a council-professional manager system might have been an obstacle to the “good old boy” favor trading prevalent at the time.
Well, so much for history, other than the obvious lesson that better not be forgotten if there is another attempt to get a home rule charter passed by the voters in Island County: assume at the outset that those who benefit greatly by the status quo will do whatever they can to prevent change. Of course, that’s a problem hardly unique to Island County, as we’ve seen in this election.
Steve Erickson is a founder of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network. He lives in Langley.