OLYMPIA – Well over a century of rule of Spokane County’s government by three commissioners appears to be near its end.
The Washington House of Representatives on Saturday gave final approval to a proposal that will increase Spokane County’s board of commissioners from three to five. The final decision rests with Gov. Jay Inslee, but the bill’s sponsor said he believes the governor supports the legislation.
The bill has bounced back and forth between the two chambers in recent weeks. The change would happen after five separate districts are drawn in 2021, based on the results of the 2020 Census. The first election for a five-seat commission would occur in 2022.
Currently, the three members of the board of commissioners run in their own districts during August primaries, but compete countywide in November general elections. The bill, crafted by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, changes the election format, with commissioners running in their districts for both the primary and general.
Spokane is currently the most populous county in the state to operate under Washington’s original, three-commissioner form of county governance.
“I think this means better direct representation for folks,” he said. “We’re a large county now, and it makes sense to have five commissioners.”
While the bill received bipartisan support among lawmakers representing Spokane, it is strongly opposed by two of the commission’s three sitting members. Commissioner Al French, who campaigned against – and ultimately helped defeat – a ballot measure proposing a similar move in 2015, said taking the issue to the Legislature was essentially an end-run around Spokane voters.
“It’s amazing to me that the Legislature would put forward a bill that targets Spokane, that treats Spokane differently from any other county in the state,” he said. While other counties have elected to increase the size of their commissions through a vote, this bill imposes that decision on Spokane, he said.
French also said the move to district-only elections could diminish the influence of individual votes on countywide issues, such as land-use policy.
“With this bill, you can only vote for one in five positions,” he said. “Your vote is diminished by 80 percent.”
Riccelli said it is appropriate for the Legislature to consider the issue.
“The folks elected at state level got together on this,” he said. “We’re all duly elected, representing around 140,000 voters each. I think we put a process in place, and we made sure it didn’t happen too fast.”
Spokane’s other two county commissioners have differed on the issue, with Commissioner Mary Kuney voicing concerns similar to those of French and Commissioner Josh Kerns saying he could work equally effectively under either system. All three current commissioners are Republicans.
Past commissioners, too, were split.
In comments forwarded to a Spokesman-Review reporter this week, former Commissioner John Roskelley, a Democrat, listed the reasons he believed the bill should not be made into law, echoing some of the points made by French and Kuney, and also pointing to the added cost of increasing the size of the commission, which he put at $500,000 a year.
Kerns previously has said that he believed the county could support the cost.
But former Commissioner Bonnie Mager, a Democrat, said the bill represented a “good first step” toward equitable representation.
“We have such a large community – such a diverse community – that people would be better served if each (commissioner) were elected by their own district,” she said.
The bill stipulates guidelines for a panel to draw district boundaries, with the process for member selection patterned after the the state’s redistricting commission. Spokane-area legislators would appoint the four members, with the members of each party in each chamber getting one selection. The change made by the Senate adds legislators from the two districts that have part of their constituents in Spokane County to the three that are wholly in the county.
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