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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Activist calls for adding two seats to county commission

Once again, Spokane County commissioners will hear a proposal to increase their ranks by two.

Community activist Karen Kearney announced her intention to bring the idea to the all-Republican commission last week. Kearney said she has no intention of running for one of the seats if the proposal comes to fruition, and that her request is not politically motivated.

“Now I have incredible grass-roots support,” Kearney said last week at a Spokane City Council meeting.

But the five-commissioner idea has several hurdles to clear, and history is not on Kearney’s side.

In 1994 and again in 2007, there were efforts to move the county to a charter form of government that would allow lawmakers and voters to decide how many county commissioners they wanted. The efforts failed both times, and Spokane County government remains structured as outlined in state law, with three county commissioners serving a population of about 480,000 people.

Kearney is instead seeking to add commissioners through a procedure outlined in state law that requires a ballot measure, initiated by either lawmakers or through a signature-gathering petition.

Proponents of the five-commissioner plan say it’s needed to ensure wider representation on a body that has tremendous legislative and executive power. They also say current officeholders have too many committee obligations to regularly meet with constituents.

“I’m asking for taxation with more representation,” Kearney said.

Jim CastroLang, chairman of the Spokane County Democratic Central Committee, said a five-member board would make it difficult for two people to control the legislative agenda of the county, which is possible in the current system.

“The way it is now, if two people kind of get on the same side about something, everything’s decided before you get started,” CastroLang said.

Michael Cathcart, an active member of the Spokane County Republican Party and former staffer for area GOP lawmakers, said he also supported the idea.

“I think going to five is exactly what needs to happen,” Cathcart said.

But current and former county commissioners are hesitant to back the plan, which they say should be placed on the ballot by the voters themselves and would cost money that’s better spent in other ways.

Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said she was open to the idea. But she will ask Kearney to return with the petition signatures necessary – 15,890, according to an estimate from Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton – to put the proposal on November’s general election ballot.

“I want it to be from the people, the citizens of this community,” O’Quinn said.

Her colleague Al French agreed. But he also thinks the idea would not make fiscal sense.

“We looked at it, and it’s a half-million-dollar idea for the county and its budget,” French said. “Two commissioners is going to cost you five sheriff’s deputies. Who do you want to protect you, two more politicians or five deputies in your neighborhood?”

French said he supported the idea when Kearney came before the commissioners in 2010 but now thinks the cost is too high. Commissioner Todd Mielke, who said he’s looked at proposals calling for an expansion of the board several times in his 11 years in office, said he also has heard concerns from constituents about cost. But he agreed with Kearney that commissioners need relief from hectic meeting schedules.

“The workload is huge,” Mielke said. “We’re spread thin as it is.”

But Kate McCaslin, a GOP member of the board from 1997 to 2005, said a commissioner’s workload doesn’t warrant additional positions.

“They don’t work harder than anyone in the private sector,” McCaslin said.

By law, the proposal would not only have to collect the 15,890 signatures – 10 percent of the 2014 voter turnout in the county – but each of the three districts would have to provide 20 percent of those signatures. A victory on the ballot would mean the sitting commissioners and Dalton’s office would collaborate on drawing new district lines, which could not pit any sitting county commissioner against another.

Kearney said she’s hopeful this time around she’ll be able to convince the board there is broad support for increasing the size of the commission. She said even if commissioners tell her to go get the signatures, she’s confident the idea will catch on.

“Let’s put it this way: This will happen,” Kearney said.

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