By Tom Davis
Washington State Constitution Article XI, section 5 made the three member board of commissions the standard (or uniform) form of county governance. Under this form of government, commissioners are nominated by district in the primary and elected countywide during the general election. To date, 32 of the 39 counties in Washington State operate under the commission form of government.
In 1948, voters amended Article XI, section 4 of the State Constitution, allowing counties to shift from the commission to home rule charter form of local control, so long as their charter contains no provisions that run contrary to the U.S. Constitution, the Washington State Constitution or state laws. To date, seven counties operate under home rule charter form of governance.
So what exactly is home rule?
Generally speaking, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: a document designed by the community to be used as the guiding principles for local government operations.
Why should a county consider shifting from the commission form of government to home rule?
Home rule offers opportunities to customize local government not readily available under the commission form of control. For instance:
- Ability to increase the number of commissioners to provide wider representation.
- Ability to remove or replace a commissioner (some restrictions apply).
- Ability to make some or all elected positions non-partisan.
- Ability to make some or all elected positions appointments (excludes Judges and the Prosecutor).
- Ability to delegate some or all of the commissioners’ executive authority.
- Ability to adopt term limits.
- Ability to veto local legislation.
- Ability to provide powers of initiative and referendum to county voters.
- Ability to create and adopt a binding code of ethics
- Ability to adopt all, some or none of the above.
But who makes these decisions?
The short answer is the voters: If a county chooses to adopt home rule, voters would elect a Board of Freeholders (unpaid citizen volunteers) consisting of no less than 15 and no more than 25 members. Freeholders have a singular, constitutional duty to create a home rule charter (with much input from the community) and propose it to voters in a countywide election.