Earlier this month, a bill expanding the Spokane County Commission from three members to five passed with veto-proof majorities in the Washington Legislature. It now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law.
The bill also changes the way commissioners are elected. Currently, primaries are held in the districts and the election is voted on countywide; under the new system, both primaries and the general election would be held in the districts.
With change on the horizon, we take a look at the history of the commission, its makeup and the functions it performs within the county.
How long has Spokane County been run by three commissioners?
Spokane County has been run by three commissioners since 1879.
What do county commissioners do?
Commissioners act as both the executive and legislative branches of Spokane County by setting short-range goals and long-range policy. They oversee all county agencies, adopt the county budget and appropriate funds, establish fees and comprehensive use plans as well as establish county tax levies.
How are they elected?
County commissioners are elected by voters to a partisan position, which has a term limit of four years. The terms are alternating, so currently, either one or two commissioners are elected in an even-numbered year. Commissioners run in their own districts during the primary election and compete countywide in the November general election.
How are the commissioners districts currently drawn?
Spokane County is split into three districts, each encompassing one-third of the county population: District 1, which extends from north Spokane to Pend Oreille County and bounded by Stevens County and Idaho; District 2, which extends south from Spokane Valley to south of Latah and bounded by an area of east Spokane and Idaho; and District 3, which runs west from Spokane to Lincoln County, bounded by the Spokane River to the north and Whitman County to the south.
How much are commissioners paid (include car allowance)?
Commissioners are paid $110,693 per year, according to 2017 Spokane County salary information.
How does having three commissioners affect open meetings?
Right now, if two commissioners meet to discuss county business they form a majority of the commission, and the meeting is considered public under the Open Public Meetings Act. Under the new legislation, two commissioners would not constitute a majority, and would thus be able to meet in private.
Did the Legislature have to act to change the size of the commission?
Over the past three years, Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, has introduced bills in different forms to change the size of the county commission from three to five members. The most recent bill, introduced in January, earned bipartisan support and passed both chambers of Legislature in March.
Riccelli said most counties containing over 400,000 residents have more than three commissioners, and because our population has grown, so has the need for more representation. He said under the current system, residents who vote in the district election, then in the countywide general election, don’t always have a say who is elected in the primary.
“I believe people are being fundamentally disenfranchised by not being able to vote in the primary,” he said.
Voters in 1995 rejected a proposal to merge Spokane city and county governments, which would have erased Spokane city limits, and eliminated the County Commission, as well as City Council, to be replaced by a council representing both city and county and an elected executive.
Spokane County residents in 2015 voted against a ballot measure that would have expanded the commission to five members. Riccelli said it was likely opposed because of a provision that would have allowed commissioners to draw their own districts. Commissioner Al French campaigned against the ballot measure, saying revenue wasn’t available to support the expansion.
How long has the commission only included Republicans?
The commission has included only Republicans since 2010, when Democrat Bonnie Mager was defeated by challenger Al French for the commissioner seat.
Why did some Republicans join with Democrats in supporting an expansion of the commission?
Mike Volz, R-Spokane, said numerous Republicans come from counties that have more than three county commissioners and said they generally speak favorably of it. He added that, with more commissioners, people should have more representation.
“We chose to be proactive and work with Marcus and Andy Billig to try to come together with something most of us could support,” he said.
The redistricting process, which will be modeled after the state redistricting commission, will be transparent and bipartisan, Volz said.
Riccelli echoes that the bill – which passed 81 to 15 – has been a true bipartisan effort to meet needs of constituents.
“When you have legislators across the county in a bipartisan effort saying this was needed, it was time to move,” he said.
If the commission expands to five, will their pay increase and would they still have full-time assistants?
According to estimates from the Spokane County Budget Office, the cost of the addition of two commissioners combined would be $326,000, with an additional $21,000 operations and maintenance fund per commissioner. They would each have a full-time assistant who would be paid an annual salary of $78,000.
How would the commissioners on an expanded commission be elected?
With an expanded commission, members would run in their respective districts for the primary and general elections.
How would the districts for the expanded commission be drawn?
The districts for the expanded commission would be drawn by a five-member redistricting committee to be established in 2021 and comprised of two Democrats, two Republicans and a fifth nonpartisan member appointed by the other four members. The redistricting committee would then select a nonvoting committee chair and prepare a draft plan outlining five districts within 120 days after the committee is established.
The committee would be required to hold a public hearing on the draft and submit it with comments from the public to the state redistricting committee for approval.
Are there term limits on the commission and would there be term limits in the new system?
A term limit under the new system would remain at four years and would extend until successors are elected to office.
Who else is elected in Spokane County government and would the legislation affect them?
Spokane County voters elect an assessor, auditor, clerk, sheriff, prosecuting attorney, treasurer and eight district court judge positions. The new legislation would not affect elections for those seats.
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