Voters may get a chance to decide whether Spokane County needs more than three commissioners to run local government, the number it’s had since Washington became a U.S. territory in 1854.
Karen Kearney, a civic activist and unsuccessful Spokane City Council candidate, said she soon will ask county commissioners to schedule a vote on increasing the size of the board to five members.
Commissioner Mark Richard thinks the cost can’t be justified in the current economy, but Commissioners Todd Mielke and Al French are willing to let voters decide.
Kearney said she’s prepared to lead a petition drive to force a vote if commissioners decide against putting it on the ballot.
Rockford Mayor Micki Harnois and Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton also support the increase.
Kearney, Harnois and Dalton aren’t working together. However, each believes representation would be better if commissioners’ workloads were reduced so they could spend more time with constituents.
County commissioners serve on approximately 30 boards and committees, and spend much of their time in meetings.
“It’s enough to make your head spin,” Dalton said.
French said he has gotten home before 8 or 9 p.m. only a “handful” of times since he took office in January, “which is something my wife constantly reminds me about.”
“I think it’s time to come into the 21st century,” Kearney said. “We have the same number of commissioners that we had back when the county was established.”
The Spokane area went through numerous county structures before its current territory was established in 1889 when Washington gained statehood.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 57,542 Spokane County residents in 1890 and 471,221 in 2010.
Kearney, Harnois and Dalton said another reason for adding commissioners is so two of them may confer without scheduling a public meeting.
“That, for me, is the No. 1 reason,” Harnois said.
She said commissioners have been scrupulous about not sitting together or huddling in a corner when two of them attend meetings of agencies such as the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, but it’s awkward.
Richard, French and Mielke agreed.
Commissioners can use staff members to find out what other commissioners think about issues, but that is time-consuming, Mielke said.
Also, he said, “It’s the circle theory: You whisper something to the person next to you, and it’s completely different when it comes back to you.”
Harnois said expanding the county commission is not a high priority for her, “but if somebody else wants to, I definitely would support them.” She said she wanted to get commissioners’ opinions before taking action.
Richard found it “disappointing that Auditor Dalton took it upon herself” to endorse the idea before consulting commissioners.
Dalton recently announced her position to commissioners when she presented a fact sheet on the process of expanding their board. She said she researched the issue after receiving several inquiries since last year’s primary election. Commissioners put the issue on the ballot in November 1991, and 67 percent of voters rejected the proposition.
Richard isn’t convinced voters will be any more receptive now. Although he sees merit in the proposal, Richard said he doesn’t think the cost can be justified.
“You’re talking about something easily approaching a half-million dollars, and I just don’t see how we can afford it in this economy,” Richard said.
Each $93,000-a-year commissioner gets an executive assistant who is paid up to $49,136 a year.
French and Mielke put the annual cost of two new commissioners between $325,000 and $400,000. They favor letting voters decide whether the expenditure is worthwhile.
“When you look at a $560 million budget, that’s a rounding error, but in this economic climate, even a rounding error is important,” French said.
Richard said he thinks commissioners should accept a pay cut if their workload is reduced.
French and Mielke said they would insist the proposal not be on a ballot by itself, which could cost the county up to $325,000. Next year’s primary or general elections might be a good time because there will be many countywide races to dilute the cost, Mielke said.
He said improving representation by increasing the number of commissioners should be viewed as a step toward consolidation of local government services.
“I think it takes us closer to the models across the nation that have worked,” Mielke said.