Idea for larger Snohomish County Council is scrapped

EVERETT — Controversial ideas fell by the wayside last week when a group of elected commissioners recommended changes to the structure of Snohomish County government.

Gone is a proposal to enlarge the County Council to seven positions from five. So, too, for now, is any attempt at removing the partisan affiliation for the county prosecuting attorney.

Charter Review commissioner Marko Liias, a Democratic state senator from Lynnwood, at first favored expanding the council. Liias said he changed his mind in light of negative feedback. That included opponents citing estimates from county Executive Dave Somers’ office that adding a pair of council members would cost at least $850,000 per year in salaries, support staff and other expenses.

“I have heard pretty loud and clear from the folks who have weighed in on this that they don’t want it,” Liias said during last week’s meeting of the Charter Review Commission. “I will say as an editorial comment that what I don’t find compelling are the made-up budget numbers from the executive. I think that’s ridiculous. And I also think it’s inappropriate for the county executive to be weighing in on the size and structure of the County Council. It would be like the governor suggesting that we cut or increase the Legislature. It’s a separation-of-powers issue.”

Somers, a Democrat who served multiple terms on the council before being elected executive, testified to the commission in May about why he’s against a bigger council.

Liias said he didn’t object to the information but to what he viewed as “a lobbying push, not an impartial presentation.”

Somers stands by the estimates from county finance staff and his decision to make them public.

“My primary concern about adding the two members was the budget impact,” he said. “I think it was totally appropriate for me to give them the budget information. I also said I would be OK with anything they decided.”

Seven charter proposals now are their way to voters on the Nov. 8 ballot:

  • Adding the county’s Human Rights Commission to the charter.
  • Adding an Office of Public Advocate to the charter. That position is currently known as the Office of the Ombudsman and was created in 2014.
  • Updating county policies about nondiscrimination.
  • Removing the County Council from its quasi-judicial role in appeals of hearing examiner decisions that involve land use, environmental permits or licenses.
  • Requiring some council meetings outside Everett, the county seat, and evening meetings for certain public hearings.
  • Changing the appointment procedures for county department heads.
  • Updating the process for redrawing county council districts.

A proposal to make the prosecuting attorney a nonpartisan position narrowly failed to garner majority support from the 15 charter commissioners. That move was supported by prosecuting attorney Mark Roe, a Democrat who wants to insulate the prosecutor’s job from party politics. Some commissioners argued that the partisan label provides voters with useful information.

The commissioners were elected last fall to perform a once-in-a-decade reexamination of the charter. Snohomish County’s organizing document, first adopted in 1980, has been reviewed by a new Charter Review Commission every 10 years since 1986.

Commissioners adjourned June 29 and are unlikely to get back together until after the November election.

At that time, commissioners could revisit whether to ask voters to remove partisan affiliation from the prosecutor’s job, said Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson, who serves as the group’s chairwoman. Gregerson said she’ll consider bringing back another idea — forming an airport commission to help govern Paine Field — only if Somers’ administration hasn’t advanced any proposals for increasing oversight of the county-run airport.

Commissioners pondered more than 40 potential changes to county government. A proposal needed eight votes of support to make it to the final stage.

“I think it was a really great process,” Gregerson said. “We set up some good ground rules for the group that helped us vet a variety of proposals.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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