THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE – Shani Taha, at microphone, center, had extra motivation for participating at the League of Women Voters’ Charter forum Monday: The greater La Connerite is running for District 1 Freeholder. Meet her at the candidates forum Thursday at Maple Hall, 7 p.m. – Photo by Ken Stern
Outside of law school and political science classrooms, it isn’t often that James Madison and his Federalist No. 51, a detailed essay on governmental checks and balances, is cited as a point of interest. Or even topic for debate. Monday night was one of those times. The name of Madison, the nation’s fourth president and widely regarded as the architect of the U.S. Constitution, was invoked during a mostly heady – though sometimes emotional – two-hour public forum on the County charter government initiative at the Skagit PUD Building in Mount Vernon. A standing room only crowd of about 125 people attended the event, during which Dr. Richard Fralick of Orcas Island outlined the process taken by San Juan County 15 years ago when it changed from a commission to charter form of government. Seven counties in Washington state, mostly those with high population densities, have made the switch. Skagit County’s population, over 120,000 now, is projected to be 155,000 in 2036. Fralick, an advocate for his county’s charter, served on the county council after it formed. In addition to Fralick, presentations were made at Monday’s session by charter proponent Margery Hite and opponents Ken Dahlstedt and Ed Goodman. Dahlstedt is a current Skagit County Commissioner. Goodman is a retired Skagit County Sheriff. The evening closed with Hite and Dahlstedt rotating between “talking circles” of charter advocates and foes, followed by the opportunity for all attending to meet with freeholder candidates on the November 6 ballot. Should the measure be approved next month, seven freeholders from each of Skagit County’s three Commissioner districts would be tasked with crafting a charter – basically a county constitution – that would be presented to voters. If the drafted charter is not approved, Fralick said, Skagit County would retain its present
tri-member commission format. The Mount Vernon gathering, moderated by Don Wick, was the first of two major charter-related public meetings scheduled this week. La Conner Weekly News is sponsoring a Candidates Forum for District 1 Freeholder candidates tomorrow (Thursday) from 7-9 p.m. at Maple Hall. Fralick took questions after his 15-minute address. In a calm, reserved fashion he touted what he said are the advantages of a charter system. He listed as key elements the separation of powers between a county administrator and council members and the opportunity to expand the number of county legislators beyond three commissioners. He stressed the inclusion of citizen-based initiatives and referendums as “a right reserved to the people,” and a critical addition to local government. An appointed administrator was preferable to an elected one for his county, which has only 16,000 residents, he said. Mandated reviews after the first five years and at 10 year intervals based on the same elected freeholder model are opportunities for revisions. Fralick said a larger county council would allow for the creation of subcommittees to study issues in-depth. That isn’t possible with a three-member commission, he said. He likened the county council system to a restaurant able to meet the tastes of many. “There’s more variety on your menu,” Fralick noted. Dahlstedt took a different approach with the culinary metaphor. “Too many cooks,” he said at one point, “don’t necessarily make a good stew.” He said Skagit County benefits from having full-time paid commissioners who can devote all their energies to county business as opposed to a county council whose members would likely serve on a part-time basis. “Our goal,” he said, “is to do what the citizens need.” La Conner area farmer John Roozen credited the commission system with having preserved agriculture and an envied quality of life in Skagit County. “Every other county,” Roozen stressed during a ‘talking circle’ segment, “looks upon us for our land preservation.” Charter supporters said their proposal would give county leaders the tools to best meet the needs of a changing economy and growing population. “This,” said Hite, “is an opportunity to try to come up with a more efficient form of government.” Roozen wasn’t convinced. He predicted a county council here, where the population is 10 times greater than that of San Juan County, would work at a slower pace than a trio of commissioners. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” Roozen said, “to realize this county has to move fast.” In any event, the time is fast approaching to when Skagit voters will decide whether to take an initial step toward revamping their county government. Proposition 1 asks “Should twenty-one (21) freeholders be elected, to prepare a charter for Skagit County to be submitted to the voters?” Separately, voters will elect seven freeholders from their county commissioner district.