Pierce County Council proposes odd-year elections

Staff writerJuly 19, 2013 

Pierce County Council members are considering asking voters to move elections for council seats — as well as for county executive, sheriff and assessor-treasurer — from even- to odd-numbered years.

Councilman Doug Richardson proposed a charter amendment to reduce crowding on ballots during even-numbered years, as seen during last November’s presidential election.

Candidates for county offices would have more visibility on a ballot mostly limited to races for local government positions, including city council seats.

“The issue is whether or not you can get exposure to county elections or county issues when you’re so far down the ballot on an even year,” said Richardson, the former Lakewood mayor who was elected to the council in November.

In the 2012 primary, there were nine candidates for governor on the ballot, pushing other races down the ballot.

“It’s very, very difficult to get traction as a candidate when you’re that far down the ballot,” the Lakewood Republican said.

Other council members say they’re concerned the change would cost too much money.

“This one does have a pretty hefty price tag attached to it,” said Stan Flemming, R-University Place.

The switch would increase the county’s election costs by about $475,000 during odd-numbered years because it would have races in the primary, county Auditor Julie Anderson said.

Richardson said the change could potentially save the county the $360,000 expense of having to print and send voters a two-card ballot during an especially crowded even-number election.

“It’s not a wash,” Richardson acknowledged. “But it’s pretty close to a wash.”

According to the Auditor’s Office, the county came one or two measures short of needing a two-card ballot for the general election in 2010 and for both the primary and general elections in 2012.

The council’s Rules and Operations Committee voted 2-1 this week to move the proposal to the full council for a decision Tuesday. It did so without making a recommendation. A supermajority of five “yes” votes is required from the seven-member council to put a charter amendment on the ballot.

If approved by the council, voters would decide on the charter amendment in November.

If it goes to the ballot, it would be the second time in four years. Voters in 2009 rejected council-proposed charter amendments that would have moved elections for the same county offices to odd-numbered years.

Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, joined Flemming in expressing concerns about the costs of the change.

McDonald cited a more than $4 million deficit in operations for the Pierce County Jail because of lost contracts.

“We have serious budget issues right now that we have to deal with,” she said.

Flemming and McDonald still voted to move the proposal forward to the full council.

Council member Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, said changing the election year cycle should be addressed by a charter review commission, not the council, since it’s not an immediate concern. He cast the lone “no” vote.

A charter review commission is scheduled to be elected in 2015 and put proposals on the ballot in 2016. But if voters approved a change then, it wouldn’t take effect until 2018 or 2020, Richardson pointed out.

Under Richardson’s proposal, elections for three council positions and the auditor would still be held in 2014, as scheduled. Elections for the other four council positions and for executive, sheriff and assessor-treasurer also would take place as scheduled, in 2016.

But terms in both of those elections would be for five years — one year longer than normal — in order to set up the new election cycle during odd-numbered years.

The proposal would not change even-numbered year elections for most judges and the prosecuting attorney. Their timing is controlled by state law.

Ken Paulson of Tacoma raised questions to the committee about the proposal.

“There’s always less people voting in odd years,” Paulson said. “Is that good if less people vote?”

He also said County Council members who successfully run for re-election would benefit by getting five-year terms on a one-time basis. That means some council members could serve nine years instead of the usual maximum of two four-year terms prescribed by term limits.

Anderson said she supports changing to odd-numbered years. Her office said the proposal would have a “smoothing” effect and better balance the number of items that appear in odd- and even-numbered years.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647

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