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Voters Could End Elections For Two Posts Bill Would Allow Appointed Assessor, Auditor

Wed., Jan. 29, 1997

Spokane County residents decided in November to get rid of their elected coroner.

Next, they may have a chance to end elections for county assessor and auditor, too.

Under a bill being considered this week in a state Senate committee, residents in Spokane and Clark counties could vote on whether to end elections for those two positions.

Two Spokane County commissioners contacted Tuesday said they favor the bill, which was written by Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane. The county auditor and assessor both oppose it.

“A political boss system does not serve the people of Spokane County, and that is who I answer to,” Assessor Charlene Cooney wrote in a statement.

Cooney would not comment in person.

If voters decide to make the changes, Spokane and Clark counties would be the only two in the state where the people who spend the public’s money - county commissioners - would hire their own watchdog - the auditor.

Only King County has an appointed auditor, according to the Washington State Association of County Auditors. But the King County executive makes the appointment while the county council does the spending, said association president Sam Reed.

“If the commissioners could appoint the auditor, then the auditor wouldn’t dare say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that”’ when an ethical question arises, Reed said.

The law would apply only to counties that don’t have home-rule charters and have at least 250,000 residents, a description that fits only Spokane and Clark counties. Counties that have home-rule charters already have authority to make the changes.

Last year, the Legislature gave Spokane and Clark counties authority to replace the elected coroner with an appointed medical examiner. Spokane County residents opted to make the switch, while Vancouver’s Clark County has not put the issue to a vote.

West said assessors and auditors should be appointed to assure that the people holding those jobs are qualified.

There are no job qualifications for elected officials. Cooney, for instance, has more than 30 years’ experience but little formal training.

“Especially with the assessor, you’re dealing with big amounts of money, and one mistake can cost government or businesses millions of dollars,” West said.

Like Coroner Dexter Amend, whose controversial statements about homosexuality led to the vote to appoint a medical examiner, Cooney’s office is plagued with well-publicized problems. Cooney inherited many of them when she took office in 1992.

Last year, a judge ordered the county to refund more than $5 million in excessive taxes that Kaiser Aluminum Corp. had paid under protest since 1990.

Cooney’s staff is so far behind that commissioners decided in September to hire extra workers and a deputy assessor.

Commissioner Phil Harris said the deputy assessor might not be necessary if the county could launch a nationwide search and hire the best-qualified assessor.

Harris said if the bill passes, he’d like to put two separate issues - one for the auditor and one for the assessor - on the ballot sometime next year.

Commissioner Kate McCaslin said she supports a public vote, but hasn’t decided whether she thinks the positions should be appointed.

West’s bill will get a hearing Thursday before the Senate Government Operations Committee.

That committee is chaired by one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, who is Commissioner McCaslin’s ex-husband.

Sen. McCaslin, who lost an election for county assessor in 1982, was angered last year when county Auditor Bill Donahue ruled that Valley voters would decide with mail-in ballots whether to form their own cities.

Supporters, believing they could not win because mail elections typically result in higher voter turnout, called off the vote until this year, when a two-year trial period for mail-in elections ended.

“This particular bill has nothing to do with that,” said Sen. McCaslin, who echoed West’s comments that appointing auditors and assessors would ensure the best possible candidate gets the job.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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