District 1 Vacancy Renews Interest In County’s Top Jobs
Local politics are getting a good dust-off post-pandemic and whether you’ve been here your whole life, or you moved here last week, you’re bound to feel the impact as Kitsap County faces important decisions about its future.
In this installment of our Government 101 series, we thought it was the perfect time to start peeling back the layers of our county government – starting with the open District 1 Board of Commissioners position, as after 12 years of service as the Kitsap County Board Commissioner for District 1, Robert Gelder will step aside May 23 to take a position within Thurston County.
That got us thinking… What does a county commissioner do? Why are they important within the function of our county? How is a replacement selected to fulfill the remainder of the Commissioner Gelder’s term? How does all this directly impact Bainbridge Island and our surrounding North Kitsap communities?
In this article we’ll strive to answer all these questions, and maybe a few others along the way.
WHAT IS KITSAP COUNTY’S FORM OF GOVERNMENT, EXACTLY?
Under the Washington State Constitution (Article 11, section 5) and the Revised Code of Washington, counties are empowered to hold elections to form Boards of County Commissioners, sheriffs, county clerks, treasurers, prosecuting attorneys, and other county officers as deemed needed for the public’s convenience to conduct business. Of our state’s 39 counties, 32 are represented by commissions as outlined by the original constitution.
Kitsap County has set up a three-member board of commissioners, each elected by voters to represent distinct geographic regions of the county. These commissioners are responsible for the legislative and executive functions of the county government. They are full-time employees of the county and its voters and serve four-year overlapping terms.
As long as the structure of Kitsap County is dictated by the state constitution, it will continue to have this commission form of government. The constitution does allow counties that reach 300,000 population expand their commission from three members to five. According to the 2020 US Census the population of Kitsap County is now 275,611.
There is another form of county government deemed accepted by the state. Seven of the state’s counties have adopted a “Home Rule Charter” that center on two alternate forms of governance – a Council-Elected Executive Form, and a Commission/Council-Appointed Administrator Form. Today, King, Clallam, Whatcom, Snohomish, Pierce, San Juan, and Clark counties all operate with Charters. Kitsap tried and failed to ratify a charter in 1971 and reports from the Kitsap Sun in 2000 indicated that there was a second attempt, but one that never came to fruition.
You can read more about these forms of government at the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC).
Overview of all the Elected Kitsap County Positions:
- Assessor – Assesses all real and private property within the county for tax purposes.
- Auditor – Provides and oversees essential services like voting, financial reporting, audits, recording property, licensing vehicles, issuing marriage licenses.
- Clerk – Administrator and financial officer for Superior Court by receiving, processing, and preserving all documents in perpetuity for the court.
- Prosecuting Attorney – Prosecutes crimes referred by county and city law enforcement agencies as well as provides legal advice to all elected officials and county departments.
- Sheriff – Provides public safety services in partnership with the county’s diverse communities.
- Treasurer – Acts as the bank for the county, school districts, fire districts, water districts and other government departments by securing and administering the financial affairs of the county.
Elected County Officials Terms
- District 1 – North Kitsap; Term Expires: 12/31/24
- District 2 – South Kitsap; Term Expires: 12/31/24
- District 3 – Central Kitsap; Term Expires: 12/31/26
- Assessor; Term Expires 12/31/26
- Auditor; Term Expires 12/31/26
- Clerk; Term Expires 12/31/26
- Prosecuting Attorney; Term Expires 12/31/26
- Sheriff; Term Expires 12/31/26
- Treasurer; Term Expires 12/31/26
WHAT DOES A COUNTY COMMISSIONER DO?
The state’s constitution and the Revised Code of Washington vests power in county Board of Commissioners. The powers are broad at the local level and touch almost every aspect of life for citizens of the county.
Specifically, the three county commissioners have four core roles:
Legislate – set policy, make laws, and write/manage Kitsap’s $548 million budget.
Administer – Provide oversight of the county administrator, commissioner staff, and four specific county departments:
- Community Development manages land use and development.
- Public Works creates and maintains facilities like roads, water, waste, etc.
- Human Services promotes the health and wellbeing of all county residents.
- Parks manages the county’s natural areas and provides stewardship over public lands or adoption of public lands.
Participate – By statute, one or more commissioners serve on more than 20 regional boards and county advisory groups including Kitsap Public Health District, Housing Kitsap, Kitsap Transit, and Puget Sound Clean Air.
Represent – The three commissioners also are responsible for representing the county in intergovernmental relationships with the cities and tribes within Kitsap County and with other cities and counties in the Puget Sound region.
If you want to learn more about the precise powers vested by the state in the county board of commissioners see the Revised Code of Washington policies 36.32.120 and 36.40.100.
County Commissioners hold open regular business meetings at 5:30pm on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at the County Administration Building in Port Orchard. Briefings and Work Study Sessions are held each Monday and Wednesday. The public is welcome to attend and all weekly agendas and materials are posted online in advance.
Click for guidance on giving public comment at a county meeting
HOW ARE COMMISSIONERS ELECTED?
Voters head to the polls every four years to elect or re-elect county commissioner seats. Districts 1 and 2 are elected at the same time, and then 2-years later, District 3 is elected so that the terms are overlapping. Only voters within each specific district vote in the primary election (held in August), but voters county-wide participate in all district general elections (in November).
For example, when District 1 has its primary, ONLY the voters in District 1 (including Bainbridge Island) decide who the 2 candidates are that move on to the general election to potentially represent District 1. However, in November, voters in all the districts vote for all the candidates in the general election, regardless of which district they will represent.
There are three County Commissioner Districts: North, South, and Central.
- District 1– North: Represents the communities of Brownsville, Keyport, Bangor, Bainbridge Island and Poulsbo in the south to Kingston, Port Gamble and Hansville in the north.
- District 2 – South Represents the communities of Port Orchard and Olalla in the south to 11th Street in Bremerton in the north, including the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
- District 3 – Central: Represents the communities of West Bremerton and points north of 11th Street, East Bremerton, and much of Silverdale, as well as Seabeck in the west.
WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE IS A MID-TERM VACANCIES?
According to the Washington State Constitution Article II, Section 15, when a county commissioner steps down midway through his or her term, the incumbent’s political party is notified. At that time, the political party’s central committee – Republican or Democrat – is tasked with providing the Board of County Commissioners a list of three potential appointees to fill the vacancy. Potential candidates must meet the minimum qualifications of residing within the district for which they are nominated, and they must be over 18 years old.
The remaining board commissioners then conduct interviews to explore the qualifications of the three potential appointees during a regular public briefing session. Afterward they will deliberate in executive session and formally appoint a new Commissioner at a subsequent Board of Commissioners meeting.
The board has 60 days after the office becomes vacant to make an appointment. The appointee will then serve for the balance of the term.
Regardless of who steps into the District 1 County Board Commissioner seat, they have a significant impact on your life, given the broad oversight and powers vested in Kitsap’s County Commissioners by the state and by its charter.
From healthcare to transportation, from emergency services to housing, and in setting county-wide growth goals, the powers of the county commissioners are wide-ranging, as is their role in developing policy at the county and regional levels.
For more detail on how the county’s overarching structure impacts your everyday life, and how you can participate in the process, stay tuned for the next installment of this Government 101 series of articles.
- Kitsap County – Kitsap County Official website
- Kitsap County Commissioners – Kitsap County
- Washington State Constitution – State of Washington
- Washington State Constitution Article II, Section 15 – State of Washington
- Revised Code of Washington– State of Washington
- County Forms of Government Washington State – Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC)
- Local Government 101: State of Washington – Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce
- Local Government 101: Bainbridge Island – Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce
- “Kitsap County Government: Home Rule Choices” – Kitsap Sun (3/18/2001)
Cover Image By: Keith Brofsky (courtesy of Visit Bainbridge Island)