County councilors to hold public hearing on authority of county manager

Two years ago, as Clark County voters were making up their minds about the then-proposed Charter, I offered my thoughts on the subject in the form of an editorial published in The Reflector, my former employer.

There were elements of the Charter that I approved of, for example the expansion of the Board of County Commissioners from three (commissioners) to five (councilors). However, there were also elements of the Charter that troubled me enough that ultimately I couldn’t support it as proposed.

Ken Vance, Editor
Ken Vance, Editor

Two good friends of mine, who I still respect very much, contacted me after reading my thoughts on the Charter and asked me if we could discuss the issue over lunch. They were both proponents of the Charter and  they wanted an opportunity to enlighten me. I’ve always professed to have an open mind so I agreed.

We met for the lunch/discussion and listened intently to everything they had to say, but at the end of the conversation, they weren’t successful in changing my mind. The one issue that I just couldn’t endorse was how the Charter would diminish the role of  the elected officials (councilors) and transfer it to the county manager, who is not elected by the people. Clark County voters approved the creation of the Charter in the November 2014 General Election.

You see, I’ve never lost too much sleep over any one election. I’ve always believed there is no reason to get too euphoric or distressed about the outcome of any election because if the voters made a mistake, they would get a chance to correct it the next time around. In addition to that, if the mistake was too egregious, they could always pursue the path of recall, however ominous of a task that may be. The bottom line is the voters ultimately have the final word on who will represent them.

That’s not the case with the county manager position. Sure, the Clark County Council is the designated legislative body and budgetary authority for the county and the councilors have the authority to hire and fire the county manager, who serves as the chief executive and chief financial officer for the county. However, it has been clearly illustrated over the past two years how the balance of power and authority is being shifted in Clark County from the elected councilors to the appointed county manager.

On Tue., Nov. 8, the councilors will hold a public hearing (10 a.m., 1300 Franklin Street, 6th Floor, Vancouver) on an ordinance “relating to establishment and authority delegated to the County Manager.’’ The ordinance includes several proposed amendments to Clark County Code 2.09.030.

On the agenda for Tuesday’s hearing, the description of the proposed ordinance was described as: “To consider an ordinance amending CCC 2.09 to recognize the authority granted to the County Manager under the Clark County Charter and to accommodate those occasions when posting contracts on the grid may violate personnel policies or be against the public interest.’’

Most of the amendments are  fairly straight forward and offer appropriate checks and balances, securing the role  of the councilors in the county’s actions. However, it represents the continued erosion of the authority of the five councilors while increasing the authority of the county manager. And, I continue to  believe  that is fundamentally not good for the citizens.

Two specific areas of concern are the authority it gives the county manager to handpick items that he will publish on the county’s Contracts Grid and those that he won’t because they “may violate personnel policies or be against the public interest.’’ That is far too broad of a definition, in my opinion, and allows the county manager to reduce the transparency that has been substantially increased since the creation of the Contracts Grid.

The proposed ordinance also includes a puzzling amendment that reads: “The Chair and at least two other Councilors shall be notified of each H/R contract prior to execution by the county manager.’’ In those situations, the county manager’s notification can be limited to three of the five councilors, allowing him to leave two councilors in the dark.

Allowing the county manager to reduce transparency when it comes to the county’s business is not good for the citizens. Allowing him to essentially freeze out two of the five councilors, in some instances, is even more troubling.

As is the case with any law, or code, this ordinance should be viewed without consideration of who currently fills the role of county manager and the five council positions. Take the personalities out of the equation. It is fundamentally wrong to erode the authority of our elected officials while increasing the authority of an appointed county manager.

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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