Filing week — when prospective candidates sign up to run for office — is fast approaching.
Because it’s taking place in an odd-numbered year, this November’s general election is about local races: city council seats, school board positions, a couple port commission seats.
All the races are important, but few can have as much far-reaching impact as those for an unpaid, nonpartisan six-month position: serving on the Pierce County Charter Review Commission.
Qualifications? Have $15 for a filing fee, be a county resident for at least five years, be a registered voter, and file online (at piercecountyelections.org) or in person at the county auditor’s office between May 11 and 15.
At least every 10 years, Pierce County voters must elect a 21-person commission, with three representatives from each of the county’s seven council districts. The commission studies the county charter and makes recommendations for changes. Proposed charter amendments will appear on the general election ballot the following year.
This is the vehicle for making major changes to how the county does business. For instance, among the 2005 commission’s proposed charter amendments was one making the county sheriff an elected position and another instituting a ranked choice voting system. Voters approved both of them in 2006.
We’re still electing the county sheriff, but voters wisely repealed the complicated ranked choice voting after the first experience with it in 2008 put Dale Washam into office as assessor-treasurer. (Interestingly enough, Washam had run unsuccessfully for the 2005 charter review commission that recommended IRV.)
So what makes a good charter review commission?
A diverse mix of folks is desirable: a few retired office holders with time on their hands and a desire to continue contributing, some newcomers eager to learn about how the county operates, maybe even some with future political aspirations.
Jason Whalen was on the commission elected 10 years ago and later won a seat on the Lakewood City Council. Today he says that his time on the commission was a valuable experience, offering an opportunity to analyze county government and to learn from fellow members who had held public office.
Who should run?
“Good-government people who don’t have an agenda or particular issue,” Whalen says, “people who can be open to the process.”
Politicians are already working to line up candidates they hope will be advocates for issues they’d like to see addressed by the commission. That makes it more important for everyday citizens who have no particular ax to grind to throw their hats into the ring.
Charter change can be a good thing, but it also can have unintended consequences — as Pierce County residents now know.