Spokane County voters will likely decide whether to make the biggest representative change in local government since Washington became a state.
Following brief public testimony Tuesday, county Commissioners Shelly O’Quinn and Todd Mielke said they support placing on the ballot the question of whether to increase their ranks by two. Even without fellow Commissioner Al French’s vote, their support would be enough to let the public decide in November.
“I’ve received a lot of public comment today in support of this,” said O’Quinn, referring to emails she’d received that cut across party lines asking her to put the question to voters. Four residents spoke at a public hearing Tuesday night, including Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase; all said they wanted the issue on the ballot without having to go through the process of collecting petition signatures.
“I think it would be appreciated, and would save a lot of shoe leather, by finding out right away how popular this resolution would be,” Chase said.
Commissioners put off a formal decision until later this month, allowing residents to write in with their comments through July 14. French, who spoke sparingly during the testimony, said after the meeting he was working on an analysis of the proposal that he would release ahead of the vote to put the issue on the ballot.
But with Mielke and O’Quinn’s support, the measure seems all but assured as a question that will face voters on Election Day. Mielke said going to a five-member commission would enable the elected officials to escape what he called “death by meeting.”
“We better serve our constituents when we can get out of the courthouse,” Mielke said.
The question of expanding the commission has gone before voters before. It was decisively defeated at the ballot box in 1991, and a proposal to combine city and county government under a 13-member board established by charter also failed to garner enough votes in 1996.
Since then, several counties throughout the state have voted to change their style of government, which defaults to a three-member commission under state law. O’Quinn and Mielke anticipated criticism about the increased cost of employing two additional commissioners, saying other counties have established models of how to cut costs on administrative staff.
“If we go to five commissioners, we’ll need to change our model,” O’Quinn said. Mielke also pointed out that Spokane County is the most populous county in the state that continues to operate under three commissioners. King, Pierce and Snohomish counties all operate with at least five commissioners.
If approved by a simple majority of voters, Mielke, O’Quinn and French will also have to decide how to divvy up Spokane County’s 480,000 residents into five districts. County Auditor Vicky Dalton said that process would need to be wrapped up in early spring in order to set the stage for the November 2016 election of candidates for the two new seats.
The districts would need to be drawn as evenly as possible and keep sitting commissioners in separate districts, according to state law. If the commissioners cannot come to an agreement, the courts would step in by summer to decide.
Among those in attendance asking the commissioners to place the question on the ballot were Spokane City Council candidate Kelly Cruz and Karen Kearney, who initially brought the issue to the commissioners’ attention in February. Testimony Tuesday was limited to the question of whether voters should decide, not the merits of expanding representation on the commission.
Commissioners set a tentative date of July 20 for the formal vote to put the question on the ballot. The cutoff date for the issue to make the November ballot is Aug. 4.
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