Home Rule Charter Definitions


Charter – The Washington State Constitution was amended in 1948, allowing counties to adopt “home rule” charters to provide their own form of government (Article XI, § 4). This home rule provision does not change the role and authority of counties, but it does allow counties to provide for a form of government different from the commission form prescribed by state law. By adopting a home rule charter, county voters can provide for appointed county officers to perform county functions previously performed by independently elected officials and can change the names and duties of the county officers prescribed by the constitution and state law. Home rule charters may not, however, change the elected status and duties of the county prosecuting attorney or superior and district court judges, or the jurisdiction of the courts.

Cities or counties can also adopt a home rule charter to provide the powers of initiative and referendum to the citizens.

*Home Rule Form – After adoption of a charter, the powers, authority, and duties of county officers provided for by state law, except for the prosecuting attorney, are vested in the county legislative authority, unless the charter expressly assigns powers and duties to specific officers.

The original Board of Commissioners and their duties may remain as is, or, their duties and duties of other elected officers may be modified. Or, the commissioners and other elected officers may be entirely replaced, subject to certain restrictions.

Home rule charters can also provide the powers of initiative and referendumto the citizens of the county. All charter counties in the State of Washington have adopted initiative and referendum powers.

Initiative – In political science, an initiative (also known as a popular or citizens’ initiative) is a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote (plebiscite). The initiative may take the form of a “direct initiative” or an “indirect initiative.” In a direct initiative, a measure is put directly to a vote after being submitted by a petition. In an indirect initiative, a measure is first referred to the legislature, and then put to a popular vote only if not enacted by the legislature.

The vote may be on a proposed statute,constitutional amendment, charter amendment or local ordinance, or to simply oblige the executiveor legislature to consider the subject by submitting it to the order of the day. It is a form of direct democracy.

Referendum – The referendum allows citizens, through the petition process, to refer acts of the Legislature to the ballot before they become law. The referendum also permits the Legislature itself to refer proposed legislation to the electorate for approval or rejection. The initiative and referendum process guarantees Washington’s electorate the right to legislate. Sponsors of initiative or referendum measures must, however, obtain a substantial number of petition signatures from registered voters in order to certify their measures to the ballot or to the Legislature.

*Commissioner Form – Often referred to as the “plural executive” form of government, the commissioner form county governing body consists of a three-member board, elected on a partisan basis. They serve as the county’s legislative body and perform executive functions. Counties with populations over 300,000 can increase the size of the commission from 3 to 5 members.

While the county commissioners establish the budget and act as the county legislative body, they share administrative functions with several other independently-elected county officials, including a clerk, treasurer, sheriff, assessor, coroner, and auditor (or recorder). The county prosecuting attorney and the judges of the superior court are also independently elected, but names or duties cannot be modified by Home Rule Charter.

*Combined City-County Form – In addition to providing for an alternative form of county government, a city-county charter may also merge the county with cities and other municipal corporations within its boundaries. Consolidated city-county governments have been proposed as a way to improve local government service provision by eliminating conflicts between competing levels of local government. Although a few Washington counties have explored this option, no combined city-county governments have yet been formed.

Representative Democracy – A variety of democracy founded on the principle of elected people representing a group of people, as opposed to direct democracywhere the powers lie in the hands of the people.

CTED- Washington State Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development (now part of the Washington State Department of Commerce) is a diverse state agency with more than 100 programs that address a wide range of community and economic development objectives. The 2007 study (referred to earlier) was requested by the Washington Legislature. CTED was directed to develop a report and recommendations related to county government fiscal health and governance.

Direct Democracy – A democracy in which the power to govern lies directly in the hands of the people rather than being exercised through their representatives.

Freeholder – The term is rooted in the colonial period when only men with land (then called a freehold) were permitted to vote or serve in elected office. Two“freeholders” from each municipality served on the county governing body. In Washington State, freeholders are a part of the “chartering” process. If a petition for Home Rule charter is considered valid (enough signatures based on total registered voters), the county auditor holds an election where freeholders are chosen. By statute, the number of freeholders in any Washington county can be no less that 15 and no more than 25. Freeholders must be residents of the county for at least 5 years preceding their election, and be registered voters. Freeholders convene within 30 days after their election to prepare and propose a charter for their county. That charter is then submitted to the voters. After a charter is adopted, it becomes law, and the freeholders are disbanded. Freeholders are unpaid.

For more information on the Community Rights Coalition of JeffersonCounty and the Chartering progress, check out the following website:



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