Debate draws a crowd and sparks

  • Tue Jan 27th, 2009 1:22am
  • News

Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman

Panels bring out sharp differences on Proposition No. 1

About 100 Bonney Lake citizens gathered Thursday for a 90-minute debate on Proposition No. 1 at the Bonney Lake High School commons.

The Courier-Herald sponsored the event and it featured two panels, one supporting the proposition and one against the measure. The exchanges between the panels were both informative and testy at times.

Questions for the debate came from The Courier-Herald editorial staff and the audience.

Panel members were Mayor Neil Johnson and Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman representing the side opposing Proposition No. 1 and Councilman Dan Decker and citizen Lynda Dabson, a commission candidate, arguing in support of the proposition passing.

Judge James Helbling, who retired from the city’s municipal bench in December 2007 after 22 years, moderated the evening’s activities. All questions were read to the panel by the judge.

Proposition No. 1 seeks to change the government in Bonney Lake from a code form to a charter-code. Also included on the Feb. 3 special election ballot are 15 freeholder candidates running for 14 positions. Two candidates signed up for position No. 9. The 15th commission seat, which no candidate filed for, will be appointed by the City Council or commission members if the charter-code proposition passes.

If the charter-code form of government is approved by the citizens, the 15 commissioners will have six months to write a charter outlining the city’s government.

Decker collected the signatures on a petition that was submitted to the city in March 2008. The City Council asked the Pierce County Auditor to schedule a special election to decide the issue.

The debate was delayed for a few minutes when Decker objected to the no-charter group displaying signs at their information table.

Decker told Police Chief Mike Mitchell the signs violated a state law. Mitchell had a copy of the law printed out and asked for a ruling from the judge.

Helbling ruled the law did not apply and the debate went forward.

Each panel argued in support of their position during the evening and, as the proceedings moved along, the crowd clearly showed its support for Johnson and Swatman.

On a couple of occasions members of the audience voiced disagreements with Decker and once with Dabson. At one point the judge reminded the crowd it was not a time for open dialogue.

A large contingent of no-charter supporters attended the debate, but others came to get information and answers on the issue.

Prior to the debate beginning, Dave Evans said “(I)really don’t understand what a charter is. That’s why I’m here.”

Johnson opened the debate with some of the points the team opposing the proposition continued to hammer throughout the night.

“When you look at the city charter and analyze what it is all about, it is very confusing,” Johnson said. “What is it? What do you do? How do you handle it? What is it going to cost? No one knows.”

Johnson continued with another central question for the night.

“Is it (the charter-code government) going to be any more responsive?” he asked. “The answer is no. You still have to elect citizens to be in those positions. The elected officials are going to be responsive, not the charter.”

Decker countered by stating, “Charter is Latin for constitution. A constitution is a document that would give us, the people, more control, more understanding of what goes on in the city.”

Dabson said, “there are disadvantages and advantages to all forms of government…. What the charter can do for us is get people participating.”

A question concerning the cost of changing the government to charter-code form brought sharp difference from each panel. The city has estimated the cost as ranging from $144,000 to $400,000.

Decker has disagreed with the city’s estimate many times and stated at the debate, “no one knows how much this is going to cost.”

Swatman said, “elections are not free. Anytime the city has an issue on the ballot, the county will make the city pay for it…. I strongly believe the figures the city is using are very, very accurate. My information leads me to believe this election alone will probably cost about $50,000.”

Johnson and Swatman repeatedly asked for an outline of the charter to be presented.

“There is no reason we can’t have some kind of structure or outline laid out for you to look at,” Swatman said. “To have some clear idea what is suggested.”

Decker answered by stating, “there is no constitution and if there was one I would find fault because that would be against the law. That would be illegal to have a document ready to go in the hands of those people that are not yet our charter commissioners.”

One of the sharper exchanges came when Decker said, “I spoke with all 11 cities that have a charter constitution form of government and every single city said they were happy with it and they didn’t realize how much freedom they would have. How much better it would be for the process they have to work with.”

Johnson said, “Mr. Decker should also tell us every official he spoke with today on the phone and give us their name and number so we can give them a call, because I guarantee you they did not say what he just said.”

The issue of a charter allowing more freedom brought considerable and continual debate between panelists throughout the evening.

“It’s not so much that you are going to get more or less freedom as much as more consideration,” Dabson said. “The charter is going to take the government you have now and add the parts missing because the RCWs (Revised Code of Washington) are vague.”

The mayor said, “The state law gives you your rights today. It does not change. You cannot get more with a charter. You cannot get less. To me its pretty simple.”

Decker said, “Every time a constitution is created more freedom comes forward for the people. I’m not sure some of you understand that, but I’m sure some of you do, and those of you (who don’t) will get it eventually.”

Later in the debate Swatman said, “Mr. Decker keeps referencing more freedom in this constitution thing. Where’s the beef? Frankly there is nothing there. There is nothing he said that is going to expand your rights. It’s not an expansion; it’s a structure thing.”

By the end of the evening many in attendance were applauding most of Swatman and Johnson’s statements.

Following the debate, Johnson, Swatman and Dabson answered questions and talked with members of the audience for about 30 minutes.

Reach Dennis Box at dbox@courierherald.com or 360-802-8209.