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County pushes back against state move to expand commission

UPDATED: Fri., July 20, 2018, 6:30 p.m.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French listens to a supporter at an election evening gathering, Aug. 5, 2014, in downtown Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Commissioner Al French listens to a supporter at an election evening gathering, Aug. 5, 2014, in downtown Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

As the state of Washington moves forward on a new law to expand Spokane County’s board of commissioners from three members to five, the county is pushing back, and is planning a lawsuit to block the expansion.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill in March, requiring counties with populations of more than 400,000 residents to have a board of five commissioners elected by district in both the primary and general elections.

Currently, Spokane County commissioners run in primary elections where they live and are then elected countywide in the general election.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the county is considering a lawsuit because the five-commissioner bill violates the state constitutional requirement that counties have a uniform structure of government unless voters adopt a charter through a constitutionally approved process.

“(The bill) takes voting rights away from our citizens and takes control away from the county,” French said. “The Washington State Association of Counties are joining or taking separate actions against the uniformity provisions, and there’s some other concerns about the action (legislators) took and basically targeted Spokane County and treated us differently in the state.”

County Commissioners haven’t voted to take action on the lawsuit yet, but it’s anticipated the county will file the suit within 30 to 60 days in Thurston County Superior Court. The suit would likely advance to the Washington state Supreme Court, French said.

French said the county will consider hiring an outside attorney to pursue the case.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the primary sponsor of the bill, said the lawsuit is unfortunate and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“It’s frustrating for me to see the county spend money on something that was passed in Legislature,” he said. “(The bill) brings better representation and is a more fair, responsible way of having us governed.”

Riccelli said counties with larger populations should have an expanded board of commissioners to better represent their diverse communities.

“If you look at our peer counties and larger, they have a broader government,” he said. “Should there only be three people making decisions for a county that is half a million people?”

The bill gained bipartisan support from Democrats as well as Republicans, he said.

“My interest is in good public policy,” Riccelli said. “The measure was passed in a bipartisan manner to improve representation and to make sure voters aren’t disenfranchised.”

Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, who was co-sponsor of the bill, told The Spokesman-Review in March the commissioner board expansion is financially in the best interests of the county because it could save money from potential legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act.

However, opponents – including current county commissioners – say changes to the board should be driven by voters in Spokane County instead of state lawmakers.

Spokane County residents in 2015 voted against a measure expanding the board of commissioners to five members.

“Elected office is about serving the public, and they tell you they want something and you ignore it, then whose interests are you serving?” French said. “I find it interesting we are the only county in the state that is impacted by this legislation.”

Riccelli said residents may have voted against the measure to expand the board to five members in 2015 because two existing commissioners would have the final say on boundary lines for the new districts.

Under the current bill, districts would be drawn by a five member redistricting committee comprised of two Democrats, two Republicans and a fifth, nonpartisan member – who would serve as committee chair.

Spokane County is the only county with more than 400,000 people in Washington state that still has only three commissioners. The county went through a freeholder process to draft a county charter, but it was rejected by voters in 1995.

Because Spokane County falls under a uniform system of county government allowing citizens to choose formation of their county government, the Legislature’s action to enact the five-commissioner bill is unconstitutional, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties.

“It not only violates the constitution, but it is really misstepping the home charter rule of 1948,” Johnson said. “(Legislators) targeted a specific county to have a different form of county legislative authority. We believe it’s a violation of the state constitution. If the citizens want five commissioners, there’s a process for that to occur.”