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Spokane County commissioners deadlock on appointment of third Republican colleague, give decision to Democratic governor

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 12, 2017, 8:14 p.m.

After announcing they could not agree on a new colleague, Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French vote to let Gov. Jay Inslee make the selection for them on Sept. 12, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
After announcing they could not agree on a new colleague, Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French vote to let Gov. Jay Inslee make the selection for them on Sept. 12, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Deadlocked in a heated debate about who should fill a vacant seat on the Spokane County Commission, Republican commissioners voted Tuesday to let the Democratic governor make the selection.

The open seat belonged to Shelly O’Quinn, who resigned in July to lead a local nonprofit. Republican Party precinct committee officers in August nominated three people that the commissioners could pick to replace O’Quinn.

Multiple Republican sources have said Commissioner Josh Kerns favors County Treasurer Rob Chase for the vacancy while Commissioner Al French prefers Mary Kuney, the county’s chief deputy auditor, although neither sitting commissioner has publicly indicated a preference.

The third nominee is John Guarisco, an executive at a Spokane Valley marketing firm who plans to run for the seat in next year’s special election.

Before voting Tuesday, Kerns said that he and French “are looking for different qualifications” in the next county commissioner.

“As such, I believe the board will be unable to agree on an appointment,” Kerns said. “It’s very difficult when we have three qualified candidates like we do right now. … Whoever gets this appointment, I look forward to serving with.”

Gov. Jay Inslee now has 30 days to choose from the same list of GOP nominees. Deputy communications director Tara Lee said the governor’s office would gather feedback from county residents before making a decision.

Lee also indicated the office had received some feedback already.

“People are sharing their opinions,” she said. “That’s for sure.”

Some local Republicans said they were suprised by Tuesday’s decision, while others said they had anticipated it.

“I had hoped that the commissioners would make a decision today, but they were both on opposite sides of the coin,” said Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who has been an outspoken critic of Chase. “It will be interesting to see how long the governor takes to make this decision because we really need to get back to business here at the county.”

Before voting Tuesday, French delivered a lengthy speech responding to recent political attacks, including a radio ad paid for by the pro-Chase Washington Liberty PAC, a group that once listed Chase and state Rep. Matt Shea as officers.

The ad accused French of ignoring the will of precinct committee officers, who ranked Chase ahead of Kuney and Guarisco when selecting the nominees. The sitting commissioners are not legally required to appoint the party favorite, but Chase and others said French has repeatedly promised to do so.

“Nowhere in the constitution does it say the county commissioners have to select the top candidate from the PCOs. In fact, the PCOs aren’t even mentioned in the state constitution,” French said. “It amazes me that every time we go through this process, there are self-identified Republicans out there that choose to ignore the constitution for their own political agenda.”

French also said the Washington Liberty PAC “mischaracterized” statements he made during and after his 2014 reelection campaign. He said he only committed to give the PCOs “greater deference” than they received during his first term in office.

“It means that when I have candidates of equal quality, that I will use the recommendation of the PCOs to assist me in my final decision,” French said.

Stephanie Cates, the chairwoman of the Spokane County Republican Party, supported French’s comments on the appointment process.

“There is a reason we choose three as PCOs. We’re essentially screening the candidates for the commissioners,” Cates said. “I don’t believe it should automatically be the PCOs’ first choice.”

On Tuesday, Chase maintained that French had broken a campaign pledge by not voting to appoint him.

“I heard him make that pledge and many other people did, too,” Chase said. “I knew, or at least I thought, that if I came in first (in the PCO rankings) I would get the nod.”

Chase also said the Washington Liberty PAC had until recently been defunct for several years, and that he “had nothing to do with” the creation of the radio ad.

Cecily Wright is the current treasurer of the PAC, which raised a little less than $2,400 in late August and early September, according to records filed with the Public Disclosure Commission. The radio ad aired Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.

In a phone call Tuesday, Wright refused to say who was involved in writing and recording the ad.

“It’s been tweaked so many times. It was a compilation of different people and voices,” she said. “Matt Shea definitely had nothing to do with it. Rob (Chase), I don’t know if anyone contacted him about it.”

The governor might pick one of two strategies when selecting the next commissioner. He can aim to pick the weakest of the GOP nominees, who might be felled by a Democratic challenger in next year’s special election. Or he can put more emphasis on the nominees’ qualifications.

Since the party delivered its list of nominees, the commissioners’ office has been inundated with emails, letters and phone calls. In one email, state Rep. Bob McCaslin urged French to vote for Chase – or risk facing a Republican challenger in the next election.

Others have written in support of Kuney, including former Commissioner Kate McCaslin, former county CEO Marshall Farnell, former Spokane Valley Mayor Diana Wilhite, and business leaders including Betsy Cowles, the chairwoman of the Cowles Company, which owns The Spokesman-Review.

In a text message, Kuney said she was “disappointed that the commissioners couldn’t reach a decision.”

“I look forward to answering any questions the governor may have and can’t wait to get to work with the commissioners on balancing the county budget,” she said.

Guarisco, meanwhile, considers himself a sound, “neutral” option but suspects he wasn’t chosen because the sitting commissioners are loyal to the other nominees. Kuney served as treasurer on one of French’s campaigns, and Chase and Kerns have been seen as close allies.

“I don’t have a relationship with either of the commissioners, and it seemed to me those other ones do,” he said. “I’m not really attached to anyone. I just want to get in there and serve. They say that all three of us are qualified, so why don’t they pick me?”