Freeholders agree to nonpartisan, district elections

If voters approve a proposed new county charter in an election scheduled for February 2002, they will change the manner by which county council members are elected. Then they’ll have the chance to change back in November 2003.

If voters approve a proposed new county charter in an election scheduled for February 2002, they will change the manner by which county council members are elected.

Then they’ll have the chance to change back in November 2003.

The Kitsap County Board of Freeholders voted Saturday, Oct. 13, to call for district-only council elections in a proposed charter to be sent to voters early next year. That’s a change from the current system, in which county commissioners are nominated in district-only balloting and elected countywide.

If the charter passes, Kitsap voters will have the opportunity to address the controversial issue directly. In a compromise adopted during a meeting Saturday at the Givens Community Center in Port Orchard, the charter will include a provision for a special election on the elections issue in November 2003.

That referendum would ask voters if they want to elect council members via the system called for in the charter, or by the system currently in place here.

The freeholders voted 12-6, with three members absent, to implement district-only balloting. The vote to call for a 2003 referendum on the issue was 14-3, with one abstention.

The freeholders also voted to make all county offices, except for prosecuting attorney, nonpartisan. A previous draft of the charter retained partisan labels for county council members and a new county executive, while making the offices of clerk, sheriff, auditor, assessor and treasurer nonpartisan. State law requires the prosecutor to remain a partisan position.

That vote was 15-2, with one abstention.

“I have never in any way functioned in a partisan way in my office,” said freeholder Sharon Shrader, who also is the county treasurer. “That hat hangs outside my door.”

Several freeholders pointed out that nonpartisan elections will make federal employees eligible to run for office. The Hatch Act prohibits federal workers from participating in partisan elections.

Others pointed out that county government deals mostly with nonpartisan issues.

“When I served on (the Bainbridge Island) city council, some people I knew were Republicans, some people I knew were Democrats, some I didn’t know,” said freeholder Andrew Maron. “It never made a difference.”

Others supported the change in light of a recent public opinion poll which found support for nonpartisan elections. That poll, conducted by the Sun newspaper of Bremerton, also was cited as a reason for retaining district-only elections.

“It’s fairly clear that voter sentiment is on the side of going to district elections,” said freeholder DeWayne Boyd of Bremerton. “We ought to stay with the decision to go with by-district. But we also ought to go with a provision … to go to voters.”

The freeholders could have put that question to the electorate at the same time as the February charter vote. They rejected that option, in part because of public testimony in favor of a “complete charter.”

The 2003 ballot option will be included as a new article in the charter.

Some freeholders argued against the ballot option on the grounds that it would confuse voters. But freeholder Jim Avery argued, “I think it would not be that confusing. It would diffuse the opposition to the charter.”

Freeholder Barbara Stephenson pointed out that the ballot option provision could allow members of the board to vote “almost unanimously” to approve the charter. Unanimous support of the freeholders has been viewed as crucial to winning voter approval of the charter in February.

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