County Charter Review commissioners eye Paine Field governance, other issues

Jennifer checks agenda as Marko looks on
Charter Review Commissioner Jennifer Gregerson checks her agenda as commission member Marko Lilas looks on.

In contrast to national politics, a convivial mood was on display as the 2016 Snohomish County Charter Review Commission met in the Edmonds City Council Chambers Wednesday night to evaluate proposals to amend the Snohomish County Charter.

Reviewing and updating the county charter is a task that takes place every 10 years. A 15-member commission — elected by public vote during the November 2015 general election — is undertaking the 2016 charter review process.

Charter review members in attendance at last night’s meeting included Commission chair Jennifer Gregerson, vice chair Bob Terwilliger and Ed Barton, Carin Chase, Natalia Fior, John Koster, Marko Lilas, Dan Mathews, Shawn O’Donnell, John Roulstone, Cheryl Stanford and Wendy Valentine. Raymond Miller, Kristin Kelly and Jim Donner were absent.

On the agenda were four charter amendment proposals and three charter amendment study items.

Each proposal and study item drew vigorous debates, but Proposal 2016-24 — “Evaluate Governance Structure for Paine Field” — led in the amount of time devoted to considering the agenda’s items.

This agenda item centers on an 80-acre tract of undeveloped and underdeveloped land to the west of the airport operations. Land use issues and leasing terms, federal grants and the overlay of multiple governing agencies have clouded “the governance structure” of Paine Field, causing it to be added to the list of issues needing review by the commission.

Taking an inclusive tone, Gregerson suggested that the Paine Field Community Council, which meets quarterly, should be brought into the discussion before recommendations are made regarding an operator-airfield lease options and governance issues regarding the airfield.

Commissioner Dan Mathews advanced the possibility that the Port of Everett become the governance point of Paine Field management, but that idea drew a fair amount of push-back.

State Senator and Commissioner Marko Lilas observed, “Actually the Port of Everett is a relatively small entity. If the county is going to give the airport away to a port district, it should only be done with advice and consent of the people.”

Vice chair of the commission, Bob Terwilliger, reminded commission members that “This is actually an issue based in a lease-option question! Not a question on who controls the airport, which is a county-wide asset.”

Agreeing with Terwilliger, Commissioner Natalia Fior offered, “There are questions that need to be addressed about federal law mandates,” with commissioner Edward Barton suggesting, “Let’s not use the county charter to legislate this issue. This is not a charter issue and we shouldn’t be deciding [this matter] on behalf of the [Snohomish County] Council.”

Mathews moved, with Barton’s second, to vote on a plan to move the governance question of Paine Field for further review. However, Mathews’ motion did not end the discussion as Koster reminded the commissioners that the issue of the governance structure for Paine Field needed the input of “all appropriate parties.”

On final vote, the motion to further review the governance structure of Paine Field prevailed.

In fact, as each item on the evening’s agenda was ticked off, the motions for further review were racked up.

Although the issue of whether or not the governance structure of Paine Field should be evaluated was the most hotly debated question, the actual first amendment proposal to be considered by the commission concerned a provision to provide finance reform of county elections (Proposal 2016-29).

Lilas suggested support for lower campaign contribution limits, like those already in effect in Seattle and Edmonds. He added provisions that would “prohibit incumbents from soliciting [campaign] contributions from their employees.”

Ed Barton responded, “No argument from me that campaign funding limits should be lowered.”

Commissioners then discussed the idea of a campaign donation voucher system (described in The Atlantic as it pertains to Seattle voters), with commissioner Shawn O’Donnell and Lilas agreeing they oppose such a system for Snohomish County.

“We should look to an initiative from the people on campaign finance limits” and not consider this an issue to be included in the county charter, Mathews said.

Commissioner Carin Chase agreed with Mathews, adding she was in favor of moving forward on further review on campaign finance reform. The motion received its second and was carried.

The next item, Proposal 2016-30, brought more consensus with only a few distinctions: “Evaluating Status of [the] Human Rights Commission.”

Speaking during the public comments segment of the meeting, Edmonds’ Diversity Commission Chair Mario Brown requested of the commission, “Please add [a permanent inclusion of] the Human Rights Commission to the county’s home rule charter.”

Kathy Christianson of Everett echoed his sentiments during the public comments segment of the meeting.

The discussion proceeded on how to come to terms with the fact that the County Human Rights Commission is slated to “sunset” on June 22, 2016 (as provided by county code 2.460.280.)

Carin Chase, who is also a member of the Snohomish County Human Rights Commission, said she is a proponent of removing the sunset provision. Citing “all of the problems” that have come up nationwide on the topic of human rights, Chase said a permanent human rights commission should be established on the county level.

None of the commissioners disagreed; however, getting to that point spurred a wide-ranging discussion.

Lilas suggested that at least “something elegant and simple” be written into the county charter permanently establishing a Snohomish County Human Rights Commission.

Charter Review Commissioner John Koster expressed that while he is not opposed to the human rights commission, there are no other commissions enjoying home rule charter inclusion that he knows of.

Sharing a light moment are commissioners Wendy Valentine and Ed Barton
Commissioners Wendy Valentine and Ed Barton share a light moment.

Charter Review commissioner Wendy Valentine countered, “This issue has become a major focus of discussion because it sounds like the work of the [human rights] commission may not be continued” after June 2016.

“This is not akin to a land management issue,” she added.

Terwilliger agreed. “This rises to a different level of importance for all the time the topic has taken over the years,” he said.

However, Barton added:  “Although I don’t diminish its importance, this isn’t a county charter issue.”

Commissioner Doug Roulstone made the motion to move the agenda item forward for further review, a motion that was seconded and carried. Barton and Koster cast dissenting votes.

The next agenda item was Proposal 2016-31, regarding whether appeals to hearing examiner decisions should automatically proceed to Superior Court.

Lilas led the discussion, and suggested that public comment was needed.

“There are many times when issues come up and the parties know they are going to court,” said Koster, who quickly made a motion to move the issue forward for further review.

Lilas seconded Koster’s motion, and Proposal 2016-31 became the only unanimous vote of the evening.

At that point the commissioners took on the agenda items of enlarging the county council from 5 to 7 members; a discussion on mandating that all county-level elections be non-partisan; and that the county eliminate term limits.

Each of these charter amendment study items will move to further review based on a majority vote on each topic.

The next charter review commission meeting will take place on Wednesday, April 6 at the City of Mukilteo City Hall, beginning at 6 p.m. Another commission meeting will be held at Monroe City Hall on Wednesday, April 20.

Commissioners unanimously approved a  motion to accept public comments on charter revisions during the April 20 meeting, after which Wednesday night’s meeting was adjourned.

More information about the Charter Review Commission can be found here.

— Story and photos by Emily Hill

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