What is Home Rule and Why is it Good for us

Update from the Community Rights Coalition of Jefferson County Home Rule Chartering Taskforce

yes on home rule - let the people decideIn the ancient Roman Empire, “Home Rule” was designed  to give limited self-government to the people who lived in Rome’s colonies, the local citizens, instead of having everything determined from the distant city of Rome.

In the 1800s, the British Empire began to embrace the concept they called “Home Rule”, which ultimately gave Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and India, powers of limited self-government, as Dominions in the British Empire.

In the United States , many states to granted limited self-government, or partial autonomy, to cities and counties wanting to manage their local affairs, rather than everything being determined from afar.

The idea was to give cities and counties the flexible ability to address local concerns not preempted by the states.  It was “local solutions for local problems”. The citizens most affected by local problems would be in the best-position know.

The Washington Constitution of 1889 was drafted in the hot season in a mere 51 days (July 4 to August 23) by 75 citizens.  It was ratified on October 1, 1889, by a vote of 40,152 to 11,879.  That’s right – a total of 52,031 votes.

Since 1889, the Washington population has grown to almost 7 million, with 19 cities having larger populations than the entire state-wide vote in 1889.

The 1889 Washington constitution created a simple, off the shelf  “three member commissioner” form of county government – which combined both the legislative and the executive functions, as opposed to keeping them separate as they are in the US Constitution where they are divided, and balanced, between the Congress and the President.

Back then, the commissioners dealt mostly with “roads and taxes”, since roads were scarce. In 1948, shortly after the end of World War II, and as the needs of government became more complex, the legislature decided to provide a “Home Rule” option for Washington cities and counties to create their own forms of local government tailored to specific needs of each community.

Who is Chartered in Washington State?

Washington State map of Chartered counties and cities

Washington State map of Chartered counties and cities

Generally, larger and more progressive counties with increasingly complex problems lead the effort to create, and tailor, “Home Rule” charters.  King in 1969, Whatcom in 1978, Clallam in 1979, Snohomish in 1980, Pierce in 1981 and San Juan in 2005.

King, Whatcom, Snohomish and Pierce decided to split the legislative and executive functions of county government between legislative council members and an elected executive, to match the separation of powers in the US government and all state governments.

We in Jefferson County still have the simple, off-the-shelf version of county government designed in 1889 when the population was small, most travel was by water, the horse and wagon used dirt roads, most people walked a lot, and the technological revolution was far in the future. “Don’t fix what ain’t broke” is a timeless perspective which is often heard but rarely taken seriously.

Since 1889, we’ve fixed a lot of things that weren’t  “broke”.  Paved roads replaced dirt roads weren’t broke, the automobile replaced the “horse and buggy” that wasn’t broke, electric lights replaced candles and oil lamps which gave decent light, the telephone came in even though the Pony Express was never broke, computers replaced adding machines, and smart phones are way ahead of the old hand crank party-line phones that have been relegated to museums and antique stores.

We have major improvements all around – except for our form of county governance – which was invented in 1889 during the high-water mark of the horse and buggy days.

We still let three “commissioners” decide and implement, if they choose, all the good ideas.  A charter form of government can provide for greater citizen participation, more good ideas, and far more vigorous and interesting elections.

Do we trust our fellow adult citizens, many of whom are well-educated, and experienced in many fields, especially in Jefferson County, to have a voice?  Do we trust in the brain-power of our fellow citizens or do we leave it to the three overseers to have all the wisdom?  Are there good ideas, from a wider selection of experienced thinkers, which deserve a hearing before our fellow citizens? Or are all the good ideas held by three people?  By insiders?

To be adopted, new citizen ideas would still have to have merit and command a majority of county support in order to become law.

Should we elect 15 conscientious freeholders and ask them to come together to see if they can craft a charter flexible enough and intelligent enough to meet the interests, needs and scrutiny of the majority of Jefferson County voters? A charter, to be adopted, will have to be written well enough to survive a county-wide examination and satisfy a majority of our voters in a future election, perhaps in 2015.

Have we heard some say we should reject the idea of the Charter before we find out what it contains.  Who could seriously reject an offering sight unseen? Let’s give the freeholders, and ourselves, the chance to be heard.  Let’s challenge the freeholders and ourselves to create the best and most responsible charter possible, a charter with the flexibility to serve our coming generations.

Let’s vote to have it written, to see it, to discuss the finished product, and then vote it up or down after we’ve scrutinized it. Let’s give ourselves the option of initiative and referendum, and a protective citizen Bill of Rights.  Let’s separate the executive and legislative functions, as they should be separated in the best interests of all citizens.

Let’s move into the modern world and retire the “horse and buggy” commissioner form of government to a well-earned corner in the museum of history.

Written by John Wood –  September 2013

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