King County charter update targets police oversight, elections, council size

A commission is reviewing the county’s charter and will make recommendations by May.

Police oversight, runoff voting and public elections financing could all be on upcoming ballots as part of King County’s county charter update.

The county’s charter is a guiding document that outlines how it operates and delegates its powers. The charter is updated every decade and changes must be approved by voters. The King County Charter Review Commission was created in 2018 to look at ways to update the charter and created a list of possible topics that touch on issues ranging from which officials are elected to how the county should handlesurplus land.

The commission has until May to get community feedback and draft final recommendations to pass on to the King County Council. The council then decides which recommendations to put before voters, said commissioner and Kirkland City Council member Toby Nixon.

“We didn’t try to prejudge which ones would the council likely approve or not, we just said which ones would be most interesting to the public,” he said.

Police oversight

One proposed change would let the county’s civilian-led Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) issue subpoenas, expanding that department’s ability to investigate and report on the King County Sheriff’s Office. In addition to unincorporated areas, the sheriff’s office also provides policing services for several cities in the county including Kenmore, Maple Valley and SeaTac.

Deborah Jacobs is the director of OLEO and said the county council gave her office expanded power to investigate in 2017. This included the ability to independently investigate the sheriff’s office as well as issue subpoenas. However, she said the ability to issue subpoenas must be bargained with police unions, which is currently in progress.

“Subpoena power is a necessary tool for conducting thorough investigations,” Jacobs said in an email. “If OLEO conducts an investigation, but does not have the opportunity to interview personnel, or obtain evidence, it’s unlikely that the investigation will be thorough and complete.”

Giving OLEO the power to issue subpoenas in the county charter would send a strong message that her office has the tools it needs to conduct and complete independent investigations, Jacobs said.

The commission could also recommend changes to which officials are directly elected, including making the King County sheriff an appointed position instead of an elected position, and making the King County Public Defender position an elected position.

Election reforms

Several potential recommendations deal with elections. One major change could be a recommendation to move the county to a ranked choice voting system, where voters rank all of the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of first choice preferences, then that candidate wins, but if not, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The process would repeat itself until one candidate reaches a majority.

Commission documents said this form of runoff voting is already being used by a number of jurisdictions across the country. It can increase representation for historically underrepresented communities like women and people of color. Pierce County approved a similar system in 2006, but it was later repealed in the 2009 election by voters.

“I really think that ranked choice voting would help us encourage more politically diverse candidates and that it would kind of tone down the negativity that we see,” Nixon said.

The commission could also recommend the county create a public financing system for political campaigns, similar to Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program. Seattle’s program was approved by voters in 2015 and a subsequent University of Washington study found the number of Seattle residents involved in providing campaign contributions increased after the program was created. However, historically underrepresented groups were less likely to participate.

Nearly 21,000 people used the vouchers in Seattle, but older residents were three times more likely to participate than younger residents. And while 4 percent of white Seattelites returned their vouchers, only 2.4 percent of black residents did the same. On top of this, 5 percent of people earning more than $75,000 annually participated compared to 2 percent of those making less than $30,000.

Bigger council?

Expanding the King County Council is also on the agenda. The council represents the 13th most populous county in the U.S., with just over 2.1 million residents. In 1992, voters approved a charter to increase the size of the council from nine to 13 members, a decision that was later reversed in 2004.

Increasing the size of the council could provide more direct representation for residents, Nixon said.

“Here we are in a county with a huge geography and a huge population and we’ve got just nine people,” he said.

The commission has been holding community meetings that haven’t been well attended. A meeting on Feb. 19 in Seattle brought in less than 10 people, and no one showed up to a public meeting the following night in Fall City. Commission co-chair Louise Miller, a former state representative and county council member, said she hopes to get more comments on their proposals.

“We thought it was important to try and get out and get input from people in the community,” Miller said.

Miller said residents can also share their ideas at regular meetings, which are held roughly once a month. The next public meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Federal Way Community Center.

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