Politics & Government

Should Pierce County elected officials hold two offices?

Pierce County would become the first county in the state to ban county elected officials from holding almost any other elected office if voters approve a charter amendment in November.

Charter Amendment 44 — titled the “conflict of interest” amendment — would prohibit County Council members, the county executive, assessor-treasurer, auditor, sheriff and prosecuting attorney from holding any other elected public office except for precinct committee officer.

None of the elected officials in those positions currently holds another elected office. But the possibility of state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, winning her bid for County Council prompted members of the Charter Review Commission earlier this year to propose prohibiting holding dual offices.

Roach initially had said she might hold on to her Senate seat if elected to the County Council. She now says she won’t occupy both positions simultaneously.

Other Washington counties have restrictions against someone holding two elected county offices, but those bans don’t extend outside county government.

State law doesn’t prohibit dual office holding, but it does prohibit a person from appearing on the same ballot for more than one position. The state Attorney General’s Office also has determined certain elected positions, such as a mayor and county commissioner, are “incompatible” because the interests of the jurisdictions could conflict.

Pierce is one of seven Washington counties that have chosen to adopt a charter form of government, which gives it the authority to adopt rules for county government that go beyond state law.

Martha Lantz proposed the Pierce County amendment as a member of the Charter Review Commission, which convenes once every 10 years to consider changes to the charter, which is the foundation for county government.

She cited concerns about one person collecting two elected salaries, possible conflicts of interest and a full-time elected official trying to do more than one job.

“To me it was just a good idea, a good-government type of thing,” Lantz said. “We want to send a message that we want our elected officials to not be conflicted.”

Lantz co-authored the voter guide statement in support of the amendment. It argues that “holding dual offices compromises decision-making at both levels” and notes that a state legislator can pass laws that increase costs to Pierce County while decreasing costs to the state. “Who gets to decide whose interests are represented?” it says.

Not all charter review members support the amendment.

Three of them — Joshua Penner, Amy Cruver and Janis Clark — wrote the opposition statement in the voters guide.

“Instead of actually fixing a problem, this amendment only removes potential candidates from your ballot,” they wrote, arguing county and state law already provides penalties for conflicts of interest.

“County elected officials should consider their county office their primary job, but shouldn’t be restricted from working a second, part-time job,” the statement says.

Former state Rep. Hans Dunshee said he can’t recommend that kind of arrangement, at least not if the positions are a full-time elected county position and a seat in Washington’s part-time Legislature.

In February, the Snohomish County Council appointed him to a vacant council position. At the time, he was the head budget writer for the state House. The Snohomish Democrat stuck around the Legislature for roughly two months until the budget was done before resigning his state House seat.

“I don’t think it’s proper to do two jobs like that,” Dunshee said of his House resignation. “Both those jobs, the state Legislature and County Council, were pretty much full time.”

Dunshee said holding the two positions might have been more doable for a newcomer, but not for a veteran legislator like him who headed committees and was in charge of writing the budget.

“If you’re relatively new to the Legislature, and if we didn’t have six-month sessions, it might work,” he said. “But it wasn’t for me in the position I was in. I wouldn’t advocate it for anybody.”

Longtime state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, disagrees. Sheldon has served simultaneously as a Mason County commissioner and state senator for 11 years.

Sheldon said his proximity to Olympia — 25 miles from the county seat in Shelton — helps.

“The voters would not have elected me each of those times if I wasn’t doing my job,” said Sheldon who has been in the Senate since 1997.

Sheldon did not file to run for a fourth term as county commissioner. Juggling both elected positions did not influence his decision not to run, he said.

Mason County’s two other commissioners, Republican Randy Neatherlin and independent Terri Jeffreys, have a different opinion about Sheldon’s double duty.

Both cited Sheldon’s absences at county meetings, saying his lack of attendance slows county governance. During the legislative session, Sheldon attends some county meetings via phone, which doesn’t always go well, Jeffreys said.

“I believe the constituents are not well-served as far as representation for our county matters strictly,” Jeffreys said. “I would not recommend it for any county.”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

Charter Amendment No. 45

Also on the Nov. 8 ballot, amendment No. 45 would remove the bidding threshold that requires the county to seek bids from independent contractors on any public works construction project valued above $25,000. Removal would allow county employees to complete work where applicable, and brings the county charter in line with state law, according to county officials.

The new threshold would be $3.4 million annually. That means if the county exceeds $3.4 million in in-house public works projects in a year, it would have to seek public bids for subsequent projects that year.

Being able to do the work in-house with qualified county employees would save time and money, county engineer Brian Stacy said. He said most of the work would be on “small-scale road work and repairs,” and the county would maintain its public bidding for larger projects as required by state law.

Before work could be done, the county must prove three things: It is cheaper for county employees to do the work than the private sector; county employees have the skills and materials to do the work; and employees can add the project to their existing workload, Stacy said.

Janis Clark, who wrote the opposition statement in the Pierce County voters guide as a “Friend of Independent Contractors,” argued the amendment takes away jobs from independent contractors and eliminates taxpayers’ rights to a brief description of the work and cost estimates. She also argued keeping the work at the county level makes it hard to know whether the lowest price is guaranteed.