Opinion

We can’t endorse: A flawed fix to Pierce County term limits

The County-City Building on Tacoma Avenue is the center of Pierce County government, including the elected County Council. Members are currently limited to two consecutive four-year terms. A proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot would allow them up to three terms - the same as the county auditor, assessor-treasurer and sheriff.
The County-City Building on Tacoma Avenue is the center of Pierce County government, including the elected County Council. Members are currently limited to two consecutive four-year terms. A proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot would allow them up to three terms - the same as the county auditor, assessor-treasurer and sheriff. Staff photographer

Just when you thought you’d get through an election year without being asked to tinker with the Pierce County charter again, along comes a pair of proposed amendments on the Nov. 7 ballot, forcing voters to do more homework on the county’s foundational document.

Charter Amendment 46 is a benign housekeeping item. It would enable the county to fill vacancies for partisan and nonpartisan elected offices in an orderly way. We suggest a yes vote.

But there’s heartburn among government watchdogs — and a lack of enthusiasm on this Editorial Board — for Charter Amendment 47. It would loosen County Council term limits by letting members serve three consecutive terms instead of two, which adds up to 12 years in office rather than the current eight-year maximum.

That’s a big change affecting seven of the South Sound’s most powerful and well-compensated elected posts. It needs more scrutiny and public dialogue and shouldn’t be buried in a low-turnout, off-year election.

A year ago, voters pushed themselves away from the buffet table after digesting a whopping five charter amendments. So how did we end up with two more to chew on so soon?

In 2016, the county went through the healthy, once-a-decade exercise of forming a Charter Review Commission of 21 citizens. Their job: to carefully consider whether to recommend any updates to the home-rule charter, which is essentially the county’s constitution and thus should be fiddled with sparingly. The voters’ job: to approve or reject any amendments the commission forwards. Last November, voters approved three of the five presented.

Allowing three council terms was one of several ideas the commission pondered but ultimately punted. The County Council then picked up the ball; it has the prerogative to advance amendments to any general election ballot, free from the tortuous charter review process.

But when it comes to far-reaching (and potentially self-serving) actions, such as granting longer careers to comfortable incumbents, the County Council isn’t the best decision maker; the Charter Review Commission, with its objectivity and distance, was created for just such a task.

Term limits are a point of pride in local circles, especially among the original freeholders who wrote the county charter in 1979. They’re quick to point out that Pierce was the first county in the U.S. to cap the length of elected service. They were vindicated in 2009, the last time a county term-limits measure made the ballot, when voters swatted down a charter amendment to allow three council terms.

As a general principle, this Editorial Board tends to disfavor term limits of any duration. That’s because we trust voters to do the basic work of democracy: to elect good politicians and not re-elect bad ones. We are also concerned that term limits, over time, may cede more power to unelected government bureaucrats.

But when an elected body initiates steps to help its own members keep their jobs an extra four years — in this case, jobs that command $108,000 annual taxpayer-funded salaries — it feels like nest feathering.

County Council members could’ve narrowed the language of the measure to preclude their own pursuit of a third term; they didn’t. They could’ve explained why they supported the charter change at a July 17 committee hearing and before the final vote on July 25; they didn’t. They could’ve publicly discussed why the council needs three terms while the executive is restricted to two; they didn’t.

Of the seven council members, only Derek Young voted against sending this measure to the ballot. His reason matches ours: Let the Charter Review Commission own it. Keep the council’s mitts off it.

If we have to wait until 2026 for another commission to be formed, so be it. There’s no urgency for voters to relax term limits this year.

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