This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. July 14, 2022, to clarify the process for how the two charter amendment questions were recommended.
The County Council is considering one proposed county charter amendment that would clarify the approval process for competing ballot questions and another that would give the council more power in removing the county attorney.
The amendments, if green-lighted by the council, will be included on the November general election ballot. In order for the charter to be amended, more than 50% of voters must approve the proposed changes.
The first amendment was recommended by the county’s Charter Review Commission, and George Margolies — chair of that commission — presented it to the council during a June 21 meeting. Former County Attorney Marc Hansen recommended the second charter amendment. They were formally introduced at the council meeting on Tuesday.
More specifically, the first recommendation would amend the charter so that if there are two competing ballot questions that aim to change the charter, the one that receives the higher number of votes would be implemented — given they both get over 50% of the vote. Currently, if two or more ballot questions get more than 50% of the vote, then both automatically fail.
In 2020, county voters approved a ballot question that changed the charter by increasing the number of council districts from five to seven, and keeping four at-large seats representing the whole county — thus increasing overall membership from 9 to 11 seats. That ballot question passed with more than 62% of the vote.
Another ballot question that would have created nine council districts and eliminated the four at-large seats failed, with just 42% of voters approving it. Council President Gabe Albornoz said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting that this example of competing amendments is a good reason for the proposed charter change.
If approved by voters, the proposed change should prevent problematic scenarios from occurring, he said.
The council will also decide whether to include a ballot question that would give the legislative body more power when it comes to removing the county attorney. Under the charter, the county executive appoints that position, which is then approved by the council.
But the charter does not include the council as part of the removal process if the county executive decides to remove the county attorney. The proposed charter amendment would allow either the council or the executive to remove the county attorney through a defined process.
According to the proposed change, if the county executive chooses to fire the county attorney, then the executive must provide notice to the council within three days. The council would be required to approve the firing by a majority vote and would have 30 days to do so after receiving the notice. If the council did not act within 30 days, then the county attorney would not be removed.
In another scenario, the council could choose to remove the county attorney via a supermajority vote, or a vote of at least two-thirds of all members (in an 11-member council, this means eight members would need to vote to remove). The council would then be required to provide notice to the county executive within three days of its decision. The executive then would have 15 days to choose whether to remove the attorney — and if the executive doesn’t act, the attorney would remain in the post.
The proposed amendment would require that the county attorney be placed on paid leave in either scenario until a final decision was made. Marc Hansen, the former county attorney who retired earlier this year, recommended the proposed changes, arguing that in part, the changes would help remove the appearance of bias toward one branch of government.
Albornoz said he agreed with the proposed amendment.
“I do think that the county attorney must be independent, and although they’re appointed by the county executive, it’s really important that whoever is in that position reports to both [government] bodies,” he said. “And having that additional check and balance, I think is just better overall for local government.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org