During Jim Emacio’s career as Spokane County’s chief civil prosecuting attorney, he has provided legal advice to more than 23 commissioners, defended the county in several court cases, helped establish the Spokane Transit Authority and assisted with the incorporation of Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake.
After 45 years with the county, Emacio announced his retirement, which was effective Wednesday.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French said it’s been a pleasure working with Emacio, who was involved with many changes in the county over the years – from pre-Expo ’74 to present day.
“He has seen commissioners come and go and has been able to work with all of them whether they are Republican or Democrat,” said French at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting. “He doesn’t differentiate, he treats all of them with the same level of respect, dignity and service and with unparalleled dedication and a legacy that is unmatched.”
Emacio was first appointed as chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney in 1973 by former Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Donald Brockett.
“When I originally became deputy prosecuting attorney, there were only three prosecutors in the civil division of the prosecuting attorney’s office,” Emacio said at the commissioners meeting. “Now, we have 10 attorneys providing legal advice to the Board of County Commissioners, which is kind of great.”
Emacio was involved in several court cases throughout his career, such as a 1992 Washington state Supreme Court case against the Spokane County Health District, which had put forth a resolution to establish a needle exchange program in Spokane, as well as the Tiberino case in 2000, which determined in Division 3 of the Washington State Court of Appeals that emails involving county business are public record.
“I was fortunate enough to have argued some cases in front of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals with various parties and, again, that was a lot of fun,” Emacio said.
Emacio cited the Superfund program – which was a trust fund set up in the 1980s by Congress for cleanup of contaminated sites – as a major change that occurred during his career, as well as public records law and the Growth Management Act.
Emacio witnessed the acquisition of the county’s Broadway Center Building and the formation of the Spokane Regional Health District as a separate entity from the county. He provided legal counsel for the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority, and he represented school districts in Spokane Valley.
Emacio helped create Spokane’s Public Facilities District along with Stanley Schwartz, a former assistant attorney for the city of Spokane.
Former Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin said it was an amazing experience working with Emacio, who was particularly helpful working with commissioners during creation of the public facilities district.
“It was really a long process and he was really phenomenal in advice he gave and making sure county taxpayers were protected and not going to shoulder all the risk in that negotiation, so that was very helpful,” she said. “Jim was like a rock and always gave great advice. He’s going to be a tough act to follow.
“He always had the best interests of county government in mind,” she added. “It will be a huge loss to the county, but he certainly deserves his retirement.”
Spokane County CEO Gerry Gemmill said Emacio was the go-to guy for writing interlocal agreements between the county and other municipalities.
“He knows the law backwards and forwards – especially land-use action and what interlocal agreements should look like. He gave everybody the best possible advice he could give them,” Gemmill said.
Former Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley said Emacio has an institutional memory, which is a valuable asset for a civil attorney.
“If one word describes Jim, it would be efficiency,” said Roskelley. “You couldn’t find anybody that was so good at ferreting out the RCWs and things county commissioners use.”
Roskelley recalls Emacio was always at the office early and rarely took a day off from work.
“He just loved the law,” Roskelley said.
Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mark Richard said when he served on the board of commissioners, Emacio helped him find a solution to protect Fairchild Air Force Base from residential encroachment.
At the time, there was legislation allowing developers to build housing in the light industrial area. The county enacted a moratorium to prevent it.
“I took an immense amount of heat for that and lost a lot of support from the development community, but I always knew it was the right thing to do, because I had Jim’s counsel,” Richard said. “I couldn’t have imagined having done that job without him. I consider him a friend. He found such love in what he did. He came to work every day with a positive attitude, smile and a great sense of humor.”
Emacio said a philosophy he has followed in his career is to never deviate from the law.
“I’ll always remember how as a group we make the public better and we provide the best services for Spokane County that anyone can,” he said.
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