EVERETT — For some local leaders, a vibrant democracy is priceless.
Others fear that a proposal to add two seats to the Snohomish County Council would be too pricey.
Expanding the council to seven members from five is among the ideas working their way through the county’s Charter Review Commission. The elected charter commissioners are aiming to finish work this month on a list of proposed changes to county government that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“I’ve always favored two additional seats,” Councilman Brian Sullivan said. “It seems logical, but I think people don’t like the cost related to it. But what is the cost of a democracy?”
The commission meets every decade to recommend changes to the structure of county government, such as making some elected offices nonpartisan or adding new transparency measures. They do that by examining the charter the county first adopted in 1980. The document was amended in 1986 and has been updated every 10 years since.
Voters last fall elected 15 charter commissioners from different geographic districts in the county.
Sullivan, who is not on the review commission, reasons that more council members would help his colleagues field constituent complaints and tackle land-use decisions that can be expected as the county’s population grows. Another 200,000 people are expected to call the area home over the next 20 years.
“We’re going to be a very busy legislative body with lots and lots of work to deal with,” Sullivan said.
County Executive Dave Somers is skeptical.
Before being elected to his current job last fall, he served 14 years on the County Council.
“I don’t see the public getting any better service with seven there than with five,” Somers said. “That’s just my opinion.”
The executive made his position clear when he spoke to the commission during its May 25 meeting. Among his arguments was an estimated price tag of some $850,000 per year to add two council members and support staff.
“Cost-wise it’s significant,” Somers told the commission. “If we added these kind of costs, we’d have to make these cuts elsewhere.”
The dollar estimate from his office includes salaries and benefits for two council members, two legislative aides and two additional council research analysts. It factors in some equipment costs for computers, but not reconfiguring office space or council chambers to accommodate the new people.
Councilman Ken Klein believes the executive’s estimate likely lowballs the true figure.
“The bottom line is we can’t afford it,” Klein said.
The proposal is coming during a campaign by Somers, Sullivan and other county elected leaders to raise sales tax by 0.2 percent to support criminal-justice services. If voters don’t approve the proposal during the Aug. 2 election, the executive’s office has warned of layoffs to sheriff’s deputies and other public-safety personnel starting next year.
That reality weighs on Klein’s mind, as he explains why he’d campaign against the council expansion plan.
“Which would you rather have: politicians or cops?” he asked.
As drafted, the proposal wouldn’t add the two council members until 2022 or later. The lag would allow the county to complete its regular redistricting process after the 2020 Census.
By comparison, the King County Council has nine members and the Pierce County Council has seven. Clark County, like Snohomish County, has a five-person council.
Before voters approved Snohomish County’s original home-rule charter, the county was run by three elected commissioners. There was no executive.
This year’s Charter Review commissioners expect to finalize a list of ballot measures at their June 29 meeting. People also have the chance to comment on the proposals at commission meetings each Wednesday night between now and then.
They are looking at about a dozen ideas now, but the commission’s chairwoman, Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson, hopes to winnow down that number.
“Most people want to put six or nine on the ballot,” she said.
In 1996, voters approved a previous charter revision that made most of the county’s independently elected officials nonpartisan, including the auditor, assessor and sheriff.
This year, a majority of the commission voted against doing the same for the executive and the County Council, which remain partisan.
They are, however, looking at distancing the county’s top prosecutor from party politics. You’ll hear no qualms from Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe.
“I think that prosecution and politics really don’t mix, so the less political you can make the office of prosecutor the better,” Roe said. “I’ve certainly conducted myself in a nonpartisan fashion, despite the fact that I’m a proud Democrat.”
Other contenders to reach the ballot include:
Creating an appointed airport commission.
Having hearing-examiner appeals go to Superior Court instead of the County Council.
Holding elections for county offices in even-numbered years, instead of odd-numbered years, to coincide with state and federal races.
Adding the Ombudsman’s Office to the county charter.
Updating charter language to make it gender neutral.
Eliminate the performance auditor’s office, a position that was created on the suggestion of an earlier charter review commission.
Some of those ideas won’t make it to the ballot this year. The commission plans to meet after Aug. 7 to consider proposals for the 2017 ballot.
Share opinions on proposed changes to the structure of Snohomish County government at the Charter Review Commission’s upcoming meetings. The commission will be meeting Wednesdays until June 29 at 7 p.m. in Snohomish County Council chambers on the eighth floor of the Robert J. Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.