Signature gatherers armed with petitions will be hitting the streets to enlist support for a proposal that could eventually lead to a major shakeup in Thurston County government.
Supporters of a campaign referred to as “Better Thurston” want to establish a county charter and replace Thurston County’s three-member Board of County Commissioners with a five-member county council and elected county executive.
But making that change would be a lengthy process. They’re hoping to collect enough signatures to get an initiative on the November 2016 ballot that would call for an election of a Board of Freeholders, a group that would be tasked with drafting the new form of government that would go before voters during a later election.
Olympia City Councilman Jim Cooper said supporters plan to collect voter signatures “anywhere and everywhere we can between now and next spring.” They’ll be at the Pride events in downtown Olympia this weekend and all of the other major festivals and events in the county in upcoming months, he said.
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“The thing to be really clear with people is: This is the first step of having a community-driven conversation,” Cooper said.
To qualify for the ballot, organizers will need to collect a certain number of signatures based on the voter turnout for this year’s General Election. If past voter trends are an indication, they’ll need about 8,400 signatures, Cooper said.
Supporters of Better Thurston say the current three-person commission is outdated and doesn’t provide adequate representation for those who live in the rural areas of the county.
“All three of our commissioners live within 15 minutes of each other,” Cooper said.
A new system could bring more accountability to county government and establish a separation of powers, Cooper said. If approved, a charter would give county citizens the powers of initiative and referendum; those aren’t permitted under the current system.
“It’s really clear that our commissioners are acting as the legislative and executive branch and sometimes the judicial branch,” Cooper said.
Last fall, organizers of Better Thurston asked the Board of County Commissioners to put an election of freeholders on the ballot by resolution, but officials declined.
“A number of factors including budget impacts, gauging citizen interest, and having a robust community discussion influenced our decision,” stated a letter signed by Commissioners Cathy Wolfe, Sandra Romero and Bud Blake.
“Part of the rationale used to promote the charter is population growth in the county,” the letter also stated. “However, as cities continue annexations in the Urban Growth Areas, it is quite possible the population of unincorporated Thurston County will actually decrease over time.”
Seven counties in the state, including Pierce and King, have adopted home rule charters by a vote of the people, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center, a nonprofit that consults with local governments. Clark County voters approved a change to their government last November.
State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, said he plans to continue supporting the effort by raising money for it and gathering petition signatures.
“As we approach 300,000 in population, it’s time we reconsider how we govern,” he said. “A five-member policy-only council gives us a chance to expand representation throughout the county.”
There already have been several failed Thurston County government reform attempts, including one that was rejected by voters in 1990. Better Thurston organizers say they’ll need to have all of the signatures gathered and submitted to the county’s Auditor’s office by next April to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot.