Fixing potholes isn’t an “R” or “D” issue.
And since roads, parks and other problems facing Pierce County Council members don’t fall on either side of the political spectrum, council positions should be nonpartisan, some members contend.
But the two Democrats on the council oppose a plan to ask voters to remove party labels for council positions and the county executive.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” Tim Farrell said last week. “I don’t want to hide from my party label.”
The council is expected to decide Tuesday whether to put two charter amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot – one for the council positions and one for the executive’s post.
If the council advances both proposals and voters approve, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist, a Democrat, would hold the last remaining partisan county post. State law requires that job to be partisan.
The Republicans’ plan would continue a trend toward removing party tags in local county governments. King County switched to a nonpartisan council and executive three years ago. And in 2007, nearly 75 percent of Pierce County voters decided to strip party affiliations from the positions of sheriff, auditor and assessor-treasurer.
The problem may come down to timing.
Tuesday’s decision by the council will come just two weeks after a controversial districting map was adopted that some Republicans say heavily favored Democrats.
Five “yes” votes are required to put a charter amendment on the ballot.
With five Republicans on the council, Tuesday’s vote could fall along party lines.
Council member Joyce McDonald, a Republican, said the change was part of her campaign in 2008, but council members were cool to the idea when she first took office.
McDonald said she made her recent proposal out of a desire to reduce partisanship and not as a reaction to the redistricting outcome.
“Everybody wants safe neighborhoods, good roads and great parks,” McDonald said. “I would like to see the labels fall away at the council level so we can fully represent the people.”
After he heard about McDonald’s proposal, council member Dick Muri said he decided to suggest removing party affiliation from the county executive’s job, too.
“I think all the positions in Pierce County government should be nonpartisan,” said Muri, adding that he thinks it would encourage more people to run for office.
County Executive Pat McCarthy said she didn’t learn about the proposal affecting her job until it was a last-minute addition at the June 21 council meeting. It would have been nice for council members to have had a conversation with her beforehand, she said.
“I was disappointed,” she said.
McCarthy doesn’t know what problem the council is trying to resolve by making the positions nonpartisan.
“The current system has served us well for many years, so I don’t know what the sense of urgency is for changing it today,” said McCarthy, a Democrat.
She said it’s better for voters that candidates be transparent and disclose their party affiliation.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that this issue arose over the redistricting issue,” McCarthy said.
It’s obvious, she said, because “nothing else has changed that would motivate such a dramatic change in the structure of county government other than the redistricting process.”
Some Republicans said the adopted map sided heavily with Democrats by spreading out Tacoma’s population so the city would have a majority or near-majority in three districts. The map also drew Republican council member Stan Flemming out of his district.
Council member Rick Talbert, a Democrat, said he supports “in theory” removing political affiliations from the positions, noting the adage “potholes aren’t partisan.”
But Talbert said many people have commented about the timing of the proposal, saying it appears to be a reaction to how the redistricting process turned out.
“I’m concerned that this process will have at least a hint of some taint to it,” Talbert said at a council committee meeting last week.
Talbert and Farrell voiced the only opposition and said the issue is one for the next charter review commission to take up in 2015.
McCarthy also says she prefers that approach.
Muri cited King County as an example to consider for removing party labels. In 2008, voters there approved making the county council and county executive positions nonpartisan. That move came four years after voters approved shrinking the size of the Metropolitan King County Council from 13 members to nine.
Last week, Pierce County Council Chairman Roger Bush introduced a proposal asking voters in November to reduce the number of county council members from seven to five, which would require redrawing district boundaries again in 2012.
Bush, a Republican, said he doesn’t see a link between the districting map and the council deciding whether to ask voters if they can do without some Republican and Democrat labels.
“What we do most of here is apolitical, nonpartisan in a lot of ways,” Bush said.