County Charter amendments create new map for 5th district, eliminating countywide chair election

Three county councilors all reside in new District 4

On the Nov. 2 ballot were 10 amendments to the Clark County Charter. Eight of the ten amendments were approved by voters. Seven changes were submitted by a 15-member Charter Review Commission, three from each of the four current council districts and three elected “at large” by the entire county. 

Among their recommendations was Resolution No. 2021-3 which called for eliminating a countywide election of the chair to provide for a five-district County Council composition. The five members of the council would then elect who would serve as chair, making it a political decision not made by the voters.

Three current councilors reside in the new District 4. Did the voters know this when they voted on this change? There was no “opposition statement” included in the voters pamphlet for most of the proposed changes to the charter.

Councilor Karen Bowerman serves as the representative of current District 3. In a CVTV interview this week, she was asked if this will change how the council operates.  “It will change it dramatically,” she said. “I’m not sure that the clarity of this was really understood in advance.”

The five new County Council districts, as drawn by the Charter Review Commission are shown here. With the numbers from the 2020 census, District 5 has 5,442 fewer people than the target. A five-member redistricting committee will seek to rebalance the districts and offer a recommendation to the County Council for ratification. Graphic by John Ley from Clark County Redistricting Committee website
The five new County Council districts, as drawn by the Charter Review Commission are shown here. With the numbers from the 2020 census, District 5 has 5,442 fewer people than the target. A five-member redistricting committee will seek to rebalance the districts and offer a recommendation to the County Council for ratification. Graphic by John Ley from Clark County Redistricting Committee website

The county website explains the change this way. 

“This amendment would eliminate the countywide, elected council chair position and replace it with a new council position representing the new District 5. To smoothly transition the county council and ensure no disruption to council’s proceedings and operations, the countywide chair position would be transitioned into representing District 5 during the 2022 transition period. As the countywide chair position is up for re-election in 2022, so would the new District 5 representative. To file for the new district, the candidate would need to reside within the boundaries of the new District 5.”

Bowerman highlighted the importance of the chairman having a consistent relationship with the county manager as being a plus in the current system, and it is a concern for her under the changed charter.

“I think that the role of the chair is so vital in relation to the county manager for an ongoing relationship.” She mentioned that was especially true in the “virtual world” we are experiencing in the pandemic.

“To get on the same page on such an extraordinarily wide variety of issues is really a challenge,” she said. “There needs to be trust developed and how we communicate together, all of that needs to be developed. And that takes time.”

The new map created a surprise. Three of the current five councilors all fall within a single district. Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien, Bowerman, and Gary Medivgy all reside in the new district 4.

Charter Commission member Chuck Green gave two major reasons why they made the change, away from the countywide election of the chair.

“With as many as 140,000 people per counselor, we wanted to get more direct representation. That meant either going to five or seven geographic districts,” he said. “There was also a desire to not increase the size of the council’s budget impacts, so by a 9-6 vote, we went with five. 

“Clark County is the only county in Washington state to elect its chair, all others appoint their chair by a vote of the councilors,’’ Green said. “Clark County did this pre-charter for over 100 years. We did not see a reason that going back to that model would disrupt the county.” 

Green explained that there was a five-district alternative that the freeholders developed back in 2014 but opted not to include in the original charter. They created a District 5 representing north Clark County. The current group used the 2014 alternative with some map adjustments to balance all five districts per the 2020 population estimates. 

County Councilor Karen Bowerman shared her thoughts on a variety of topics during an interview on CVTV. Here she addresses the elimination of the countywide elected Chair position and her concerns over that change. Video courtesy CVTV

The current redistricting committee will further refine the maps to balance the population. As drawn, the new district 5 has more than 5,000 fewer people than the target, according to a map shared on social media by Cemal Richards, one member of the committee. That is more than a 5 percent imbalance. His committee is using the new 2020 census data.

The “target” population is 100,662 people per district.

• District 1 is 1,061 above target

• District 2 is 1,630 above target 

• District 3 is 2,540 above target

• District 4 is 192 above target

• District 5 is 5,442 below target

Since Green mentioned “better representation” as a concern, Clark County Today asked if they have a mechanism to ensure this “better” representation will continue into the future. “When the county population becomes 600,000, will the boundaries be redrawn and a sixth member elected? When the county population becomes 700,000, will the boundaries be redrawn again, so that there is a 7th councilor?”

“We talked about a ‘trigger’ provision but the county’s legal counsel opinion was that it would not be defensible,” Green said. “We will leave the next Charter Review Commission a summary ‘white paper’ of this and other considerations for them to pick up in five years when the next Commission is elected.”

Who will represent each of the newly drawn districts? The charter states: “If two council members reside in the same district, the council member residing closest to another council district, other than their district in common, shall represent the other district for the remainder of the term for which they are elected.”

With three members living in one district, were the freeholders being political? “Population data may not be used for purposes of favoring or disfavoring any racial group or political party,” states the county website. “The short answer is no. They were drawn based on criteria contained in state law (Chapter 29A.76 RCW, “Redistricting”), modifying a previously-generated map during the freeholder process.” 

Former State Representative Liz Pike served as a freeholder on the original Charter Commission and briefly served on the current commission. Pike saw things differently.

“In years past, redistricting committees in Washington have taken a more balanced approach; addressing existing office holders’ districts with careful consideration to logical, geographic population boundaries. It appears this Clark County process in 2021 has become nothing more than political gamesmanship. Our political divide widens when red districts become more red and blue ones become more blue. That’s unfortunate because ultimately, citizens will be the big losers,” said Pike.

“To rebalance the population, selected precincts will be re-allocated to a different district until population among districts is as equal as possible,” states the website. Once the final balancing is done, the final maps go to the County Council.

Currently, Clark County is divided into four districts shown here. The chair of the council is elected in a countywide vote. That will change due to the passage of Charter Amendment 3, where a 5th district was created. The chair will be chosen by the members of the council. Graphic by John Ley from Clark County
Currently, Clark County is divided into four districts shown here. The chair of the council is elected in a countywide vote. That will change due to the passage of Charter Amendment 3, where a 5th district was created. The chair will be chosen by the members of the council. Graphic by John Ley from Clark County

Green provided the following reference from Section 6.6 of the charter. 

“The redistricting plan shall be adopted as submitted or as amended by two-thirds majority vote of the redistricting committee. Upon adoption, the plan shall be filed with the council by the redistricting committee. After submission of the plan, the council shall have thirty (30) calendar days to amend the committee’s plan.

“If the council amends the committee’s plan, the amendment must be approved by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of councilmembers, and the area amended may not include more than two (2) percent of the population of any council district. No later than eight months after receipt of the census data, the council shall adopt by ordinance a redistricting plan.”

As a member of the committee that created the original charter, Pike ended up voting against it.

“I voted NO on the original charter because it gave too much power to unelected bureaucrats (county administrator), taking that power from duly elected county councilors,” she said. 

“Additionally it created a wall between the elected council and staff; preventing councilors from speaking directly to department heads when trying to help with citizen-driven complaints about poor customer service by staff. Under the current charter, the county administrator is the clearing house for all that constituent work. The county administrator isn’t as accessible or accountable to the public like elected officials are. 

“This was one of the biggest flaws of the charter and it’s still not addressed,” Pike concluded.

Current County Councilor Temple Lentz was on the same committee as Pike and voted in favor of the charter. 

“Being a freeholder and helping get it passed was the first really strong sense I got that the community was ready to move forward and start with its own identity,” said Lentz in a news report about her run to join the council three years ago.

She said that the commission form of government was too reactive and prone to getting caught up in day-to-day county operations. She said at the time the council should be free from administrative duties, and is in a better position to listen to residents and pursue more big-picture goals. 

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David Knight
David Knight
6 months ago

I don’t see a higher goal than to make all districts as well divided politically as possible. The worst possible outcome is to have seats that are “safe”, as that is the thing driving corruption the most.
Every election should be competitive, to keep them honest and on their toes.

IF that was the goal, the divisions would look more like pie sections, to give each district both urban and rural voters.
Instead we have clearly urban and clearly rural districts. The councilors will have safe seats, and a cadre of voters will support them almost regardless of what they do.

The worst possible outcome.

Dan Clark
Dan Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  David Knight

While I agree, making each district equally competitive, the reality is that would look pretty gerrymandered in Clark County which is heavily D leaning in south county and heavily R leaning in north county. You’d need to make each district nearly vertical (north-south) to even them out. I ran with your idea and came up with a map that does just that. No party is heavily favored in any district. But we still end up with three R councilors living in the same district. Here’s the link to the map. https://davesredistricting.org/join/c14795ec-d706-4872-90ca-9772897627d4

David Knight
David Knight
6 months ago
Reply to  Dan Clark

I have certainly seen worse gerrymandering than that. I like it. I just don’t see a more worthy goal than to avoid safe seats for politicians that act badly. The blindly following base should not be able to save them when the alert citizens are sounding the alarm.