Independence Examiner, Tuesday, 03/01/05

Legislators debate complaints office

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

The Jackson County Legislature started a debate Monday about the best way to overhaul the county office that investigates citizen complaints against the county.

The office in question is the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints. It has the power to investigate harsh, oppressive, unjust or unfair actions committed by any county officer, board, commission or employee.

For years now, the Jackson County Legislature has received complaints from citizens about the OHRCC itself, saying it suffers from several conflicts of interest due to close ties with the county executive office. In response, legislators paid $16,000 for an independent review by Duncan Fowler of Fowler Consulting in Vashon Island, Wash.

Last October, Fowler released a report agreeing with many of the concerns about conflicts of interest. The Fowler Report contained several recommendations to make the OHRCC more independent of the county executive's office.

Fowler recommended eliminating the Human Relations and Citizens Complaint Commission, an eight-member panel that oversees the OHRCC, and have the County Legislature take over the power of appointing or releasing the director. this would require an amendment to the Jackson County Home Rule Charter, and a vote of the citizens.

The report recommended the OHRCC have independent power to hire and fire its own employees. It also stated its employees should not be subject to the county's merit pay system, which puts their pay increases in the hands of the county executive.

The Fowler Report also recommended that the OHRCC be provided access to an independent attorney, so it doesn't have to rely on the county counselor's office for legal advice, since this is a branch of the executive's office.

On Monday, legislators began discussion of Resolution 15391, which focused on an ongoing problem of the HRCCC having official quorum meetings. The commission is required by the charter to meet once a month, but was only able to have seven official quorum meetings in 2004.

The resolution states that any commissioner missing more than two meetings per year would forfeit the office. The resolution also budgeted $5,000 for independent legal counsel, to address concerns using the County Counselor's office.

Roger Davis, chairman of the HRCCC, said he is in favor of anything that would improve the commission. However, Davis said he believes the Charter does not allow the Legislature to remove commissioners for poor attendance.

Davis said the lack of quorums wasn't due to lack of attendance, but lack of appointments to fill vacancies. Under the Charter, the county executive has sole power to appoint commissioners.

Davis said commissioners agree that the OHRCC needs some reform, however, he said 28 of the 32 recommendations in the Fowler Report require a charter amendment.

"I'm not satisfied with the total performance of the department either," Davis said. "I think we as a commission do need a complete review, and we are in the process of doing that."

Legislator Bob Stringfield, unsatisfied with the progress of reform, introduced another resolution calling for Davis to resign. It also asks for commissioners to sign a commitment to attend meetings and asks to advertise for new commissioners.

"Today the ombudsman office is a sham, a phantom that we pay lip service to," said Stringfield. "The time has come to put teeth into a solution. This means getting the right people in place, funding the office adequately and paying volunteer commissioners enough to cover their expenses."

Legislator Dennis Waits thanked Stringfield for his involvement on the issue, but said Stringfield's resolution would violate the charter.

"The systemic problem we constantly encounter is that the OHRCC is an independent entity," Waits said. "There are certain things we just can't do because of the Charter and one of those is we can't require mandatory attendance."

In most cases, Article X of the charter prohibits the Legislature from directly requiring reforms of the OHRCC. However, legislators do have the power to place charter reform initiatives on a ballot for citizens to approve.

Waits said before the Legislature considers introducing a charter change, it needs to fully understand all the issues. So he recommended further hearings be held over the next few weeks.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call 350-6322.
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