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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County Commission expansion proposal comes amid hostile divide on board

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 10, 2015

Spokane County commissioners, from left, Shelly O’Quinn, Al French and Todd Mielke, in 2013. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County commissioners, from left, Shelly O’Quinn, Al French and Todd Mielke, in 2013. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The most radical proposal to shake up Spokane County government in more than two decades will be in voters’ hands this fall.

The proposal to expand the Spokane County Commission from three to five members has turned a chilly relationship among the three Republican commissioners into acrimony.

Al French calls the proposal a waste of taxpayer money that will grow bureaucracy and not achieve the aim of improving representation.

Todd Mielke and Shelly O’Quinn say Proposition 1 will increase the number of voices in a government system that has remained unchanged since 1889.

While the Republicans are split, Democrats have criticized the measure, noting that since commissioners still would be elected countywide by voters who lean Republican, a five-member county commission wouldn’t necessarily include more diversity of opinion.

Allegations lobbed during meetings

Potential expansion of the commission is the third round in a public row between the three commissioners.

In February, O’Quinn and Mielke opposed a sales tax measure that would have funded public transportation projects. French had supported the failed effort.

Three months later, French blocked Mielke’s appointment as chief executive officer of the county. O’Quinn supported Mielke.

French has accused Mielke and O’Quinn of privately discussing county business, which would be illegal. With only three members on the board, two members constitute a quorum, so any discussion of county business must meet the requirements of open meetings laws.

“When there are conversations that I’m not party to, I’m not part of the process,” French said. “Those people who elect me to represent them are excluded from the process.”

He took his concerns about possible public meeting violations to a state auditor in December; no evidence was discovered of any improper communication between O’Quinn and Mielke, who have denied they discuss county business without French present. O’Quinn said she’s tried to be the “utmost professional” in the face of what she sees as intractability from French following these disputes.

Then the discord turned personal.

French suggested from the dais last month that Mielke and O’Quinn were in a relationship that allowed them to duck public meeting laws.

Mielke and O’Quinn separately denied having an inappropriate relationship. They said they met outside county facilities for meals on occasion, but never discussed county business or taking a position against French.

Mielke said he’s met informally with fellow commissioners, including French, several times without discussing county business.

French says he believes Mielke and O’Quinn’s proposal to expand the commission is driven by the possibility of political gain in their re-election campaigns next year, when they’d presumably have an advantage over challengers. Mielke and O’Quinn say French’s attacks on expansion are driven by lingering anger over the failure of the public transportation tax measure and other political issues.

French says the need for expansion simply isn’t there – that the county commission is a regional body that shouldn’t resemble a city government.

The political and personal divides set the backdrop for a ballot issue encapsulating a political argument that dates back more than a generation.

Proposal unique for Washington county

No county in Washington has pursued adding commissioners in the way O’Quinn and Mielke have proposed, though state laws were revised in 1990 to make that possible.

Prior to that year, a county had to go through what’s called a freeholder process in which elected representatives drafted a new county constitution, called a charter, to change their systems of government. Since the change in state law, two counties − San Juan and Clark − have chosen to change their systems of government, but both drafted charters.

Mielke and O’Quinn argue more commissioners are needed immediately to enable better communication with constituents and between themselves. French says a costly expansion isn’t merited by his workload.

Mielke said he often has to choose between three or four meetings to attend at a given time, which left several individuals and groups in the community feeling “slighted.”

“They felt that they were not a priority, and most importantly, they felt that their views were not transferred back to part of the decision-making process of the Board of County Commissioners,” he said.

French said the time commitments of commissioners are based on priorities. He said there are some tasks of the commission that could be given to other departments, including the Hearing Examiner.

“That’s if we’re overworked,” French said. “I don’t think we are.”

O’Quinn and Mielke point to the size of the county as evidence more representation is needed. In 1900, roughly 57,000 citizens lived in Spokane County. A 2013 estimate placed the number of residents at 480,000. Both of those populations were served by three commissioners.

But French said the growth in population has largely been in incorporated areas of the county, where citizens are represented by other elected officials. He said the population in unincorporated areas – for whom the commission provides “direct services” − had actually decreased in the past 25 years, down to 140,717 this year from 165,443 in 1990.

“If the argument is we’ve got more demands than we used to, that’s not supported by the facts,” French said.

O’Quinn said French’s argument downplays the important functions commissioners perform for all county residents, including serving on the STA board, the Spokane Regional Health District board and others.

“Eighty-five percent of what we do is for the entire county; only 15 percent of what we do is for the unincorporated residents of Spokane County,” she said.

French cited a 2012 county budget report stating it would cost almost a half-million dollars in 2016 to expand the commission, and $450,000 in annual costs after that.

“We should have at least explored all the alternatives” before suggesting something that costs so much, French said.

O’Quinn accused French of waffling on the issue. She read from a 2011 Spokesman-Review article in which he voiced support for expanding the commission and called the estimated $325,000 to $400,000 cost a “rounding error” in relation to the county’s overall budget. He noted at the time, however, that any increase in cost to taxpayers was significant.

French said the current economic situation of the county makes that potential cost more significant. He noted that many county employees hadn’t received a pay increase in five years.

“To say that’s a ‘rounding error,’ that’s not the case anymore,” French said.

The most recent economic report of Spokane County prepared by the Washington Auditor’s Office shows tax revenues in the county increased 7.9 percent in 2014 compared to 2013.

O’Quinn and Mielke said costs could be saved by commissioners pooling their staff. But French bristled at that suggestion.

“Can you imagine Commissioner Mager and Commissioner Mielke sharing executive assistants?” French said, referring to former commissioner Bonnie Mager, a Democrat. “Folks, we don’t want a government that is handicapped in its ability to be efficient for you the taxpayers.”

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