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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Once-rejected Spokane County charter proposed again

Susan Kaun saw the coming of a disaster.

Kaun was one of 25 Spokane County citizens elected to design a new form of local government for Spokane County in the mid-1990s, but in April 1995 she saw those ideas for a unified government potentially going up in smoke.

The Liberty Lake resident wrote to Neal Peirce, the consultant whose ideas had prompted the Spokane exercise: “Our charter … tries to address too many ‘common sense’ good government issues, and in the process will confuse many citizens and provide ammunition for opponents.” Kaun’s letter has been preserved by the Washington State Archives at Eastern Washington University.

Her words proved prescient. In November 1995, voters countywide roundly rejected her group’s proposal.

Now, a contingent of Spokane County citizens – many of them leaning to the left politically – are asking the commission to once again consider a “charter” form of government. Seven Washington counties, including the three largest, have adopted that form of government.

Simply adding two more county commissioners by a vote of the people “would do nothing to remedy the lack of representation that the current structure creates,” former Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager said, calling for the creation of a charter.

Mike Senske, one of those 25 freeholders in 1995, said he still supports the idea of a charter government. But the process in the mid-1990s has left him with specifics on what would need to happen for such a process to succeed.

“You need leaders that are focused on solutions that can benefit the community as a whole,” Senske said. The previous freeholder group included certain people who wanted to see the project fail, introducing complicated proposals that doomed the initiative, he said.

Another freeholder, Carol Lawton, described the process as “arduous.”

“I would never do it again,” she said. “I’m OK that I did it once.”

Lawton called the move to five county commissioners “a good first step” to increasing representative government in the county, her biggest original goal for becoming involved in the freeholder movement.

“The county is not represented appropriately by three people,” she said. But, she added, “the division could be somewhat politicized.”

Commissioner Al French told Mager, and others, that he would stand behind efforts to reproduce the freeholder process, if they were proposed once again.

“If this county decides it wants to do a freeholder process, I’m all on board; let’s get started,” French said.

Commissioner Todd Mielke also said he’d spoken frequently, following the economic downturn in 2008 and the drying up of tax revenues, of overhauling county government through a charter. He said those efforts were unsuccessful, due to concerns from those in the public that offices such as the sheriff, auditor and treasurer would become appointed positions by commissioners.

“We got a tremendous amount of pushback, from the public, believing that it would result in less accountability to the voters by going, ultimately, to fewer elected officials overall,” Mielke said.

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