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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Increasing commission from 3 to 5 worth a look

Spokane County voters have rejected the proposed expansion of the board of commissioners from three members to five going back at least as far as 1991.

The idea has resurfaced, and merits reconsideration.

Most simply, seating two more members – you cannot add just one – eliminates the potential for complaints that two members speaking or texting via cellphone creates a quorum, and a potential violation of Washington open meeting laws.

Al French alleges fellow Commissioners Shelly O’Quinn and Todd Mielke discussed the Spokane Transit Authority Proposition 1 during cellphone conversations. He supports the proposal; they oppose it, and say cellphone calls on their personal phones did not touch on county business.

Whether the phones are personal or county is immaterial. The open meetings law applies.

But proving or disproving the claim is difficult. And references to county affairs could slip in no matter how careful the callers/texters.

There have been claims in other counties with three commissioners that two were avoiding public eyes and ears by using phones, but no cases have been filed, and no fines imposed. Fines of $100 per person per incident do encourage compliance.

However, O’Quinn says sightings of two commissioners together at a Greater Spokane Incorporated meeting, for example, or just walking together down the street gets passers-by asking if the “meeting” was advertised, as the law requires.

Adding a fifth commissioner would stop the snide asides, and put to rest the suspicion that a cup of coffee by two is a blatant display of lawlessness. And cellphone records would reveal a potential violation of the law by three commissioners who just happen to be speaking or texting at the same time with or without the knowledge of the other two.

Telephone games aside, more commissioners mean more opportunity for interaction with the public. Voters want to meet their government face-to-face. In a county with the size and population of Spokane, three faces may not be enough.

Recall that in 1991, Spokane Valley pushed for a five-member commission because residents felt under-represented. Expansion failed 2-to-1 at the ballot box. There were many reasons why citizens incorporated a new city in 2003, but rejection of an expanded commission did not help.

O’Quinn, once a skeptic, says she has heard enough comments supporting added commissioners that she is ready to hear voters out on the option, possibly in June or July.

Meanwhile, neighborhood activist and former Spokane City Council candidate Karen Kearney is planning a petition drive to get the expansion on the ballot.

The added cost should be relatively small in a budget as big as the county’s, but with all the demands on static county revenues, that factor cannot be dismissed.

The bottom line should be better government. Three plus two may add up, or not.

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