Washington County Courthouse

Washington County Courthouse

When Washington County voters go to the polls Nov. 2, in addition to voting on the traditional elective offices and judge races, they will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative. This will ask voters whether a commission of their peers should study the county’s current governing structure to determine if improvements can be made to how the Washington County government works.

To help voters make sense of this ballot initiative, all the county’s chambers of commerce held an educational webinar on Oct. 20 to help break down the facts. For anyone interested in learning more about the ballot initiative, the webinar is archived and accessible for viewing at washcochamber.com.

“The ballot initiative is a two-part question to voters,” explained Deborah Grass, a webinar panelist and owner of Grass Root Solutions, a municipal consulting firm.

“The first part asks voters if there should be a study to review how Washington County government is working. Essentially, do voters want to find out if their county government is operating in an optimal fashion? If they think it is a good idea to review the county’s governing structure to determine if there is room for improvement, then voters should vote yes. A negative vote implies that they are satisfied with the status quo – they don’t believe a review would provide any benefit or identify any opportunities for improving how Washington County government works.”

In summary, yes is a vote to review and determine if there are areas of opportunity to modernize and improve how the Washington County government works. No is a vote for continuing with the current structure. The second part of the ballot initiative comes into play once the voter decides if they want to study the government.

“Voters then have the opportunity to select the people that would conduct the government review, regardless of if they voted to study the government or not,” shared Melanie Ostrander, Elections Director for Washington County.

“There are 51 Washington County residents whose names will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot as part of the ballot initiative. These people have gone through a process to have their names appear on the ballot as a candidate for the government study commission.”

Ostrander noted that this is a volunteer, non-partisan commission. More information about the ballot initiative is available in the Elections section of the Washington County website (co.washington.pa.us), including sample ballots that list the 51 candidates. Voters can select up to 11 representatives from the list of 51 candidates.

“Voters should know that if they vote yes on Nov. 2, they are not voting to change our current government structure. There is some confusion on this point. Yes is a vote to study the current government structure.”

To help put the ballot initiative into context, webinar panelist James Haggerty shared his experience as a member and chairman of the Luzerne County Government Study Commission.

“What many do not realize is that the default structure of Pennsylvania county governments pre-dates the birth of our country and was only marginally updated by a state law from the 1960s. It’s an outdated and one-size-fits-all approach, which for many counties is not delivering modernized, efficient, professional and ethical government. This was certainly the case for Luzerne County when in 2009 the plurality of county voters chose yes to review our current government operations.”

In short, after a two-year review, the Luzerne County Government Study Commission recommended changes to update their government structure and operations. Luzerne County residents ultimately voted to accept those recommendations and implemented changes, such as imposing term limits, integrating certain elected offices and processes, and moving from a three commissioner structure to an 11-member council with a hired, professional manager.

“The opportunity to review government operations to determine if it’s delivering optimal results is a unique opportunity,” shared Haggerty. “The vote to review does not pre-determine what, if any, changes are actually recommended by the commission, or if recommendations are ultimately approved by the voters. A yes vote provides the rare and valuable opportunity to evaluate how things are working.

“For Luzerne County,” concluded Haggerty, “it was a chance to review our operations and make recommendations for improvement. The voters approved those recommendations and in just 10 years, we have realized dramatic improvements. In addition, we were able to streamline operations to improve efficiencies and service delivery while significantly reducing the damaging and negative influences of politics in our day-to-day operations.”

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