OLYMPIA – In a move that pleased legislative supporters and angered local county officials, Spokane County was put on a track to expand its board of commissioners in the 2022 election.
A bill signed Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee requires Spokane County to go from the state’s standard three-person board to five members, and to elect them by district in both the primary and general elections. Current commissioners run in the primary in the district in which they live, but are elected countywide in the general.
“It’s about getting government closer to the people,” Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said.
But current members of the board say it actually ignores the will of the people, who turned down an expansion of the board when it was placed on the ballot in 2015. It failed in every city and every legislative district, they noted.
Riccelli, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he believes a deciding factor in that election was voters’ unhappiness with the fact that existing commissioners would have the final say on the boundary lines for the new districts. On a three-member board, that meant two commissioners could control the entire process, he said.
Current and former commissioners, however, have argued the voters rejected an expanded board because of the extra costs of salaries for two more commissioners and their staffs.
“People who’ve never sat in the seat think they know the job better than those who have,” Commissioner Al French said. He said the county should have locally elected officials, rather than the Legislature, deciding its government makeup.
Riccelli argued that the legislators who sponsored the bill are elected locally to represent Spokane residents.
Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the change could actually save the county money by heading off a legal challenge under the Voting Rights Act over countywide election of commissioners.
“It is in the financial best interests of the county as a whole,” said Holy.
The current commissioners asked Inslee to veto the bill, as did the Washington State Association of Counties, which argued it may violate a state constitution requirement that all counties have a uniform structure of government unless the voters adopt a charter through a constitutionally approved process.
After signing the bill into law, Inslee said he was not suggesting the change on a statewide basis.
Josh Weiss, director of policy and legislative relations for the counties association, was still weighing whether to mount a legal challenge. “We’ll have to see,” he said. “I would be surprised if we’re ready to do anything this year.”
But the bill doesn’t take effect until 2021, and extra commissioners won’t be elected until 2022, so litigation could wait until then, he said.
The bill says all counties with a population greater than 400,000 would have five commissioners, and sets up a process for appointing a board to draw the district lines.
Spokane is the only county in the state with more than 400,000 people that still has the three-commissioner system enacted when Washington joined the union in 1889. The others all have charters.
Spokane County has also gone through the freeholder process to draft a county charter; it, too, was rejected by voters in 1995.
Under the new law, legislators from districts that are wholly or partly in Spokane County – currently the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 9th districts, although that could change after the 2020 Census – would appoint members of a redistricting board. Democratic House members, Republican House members, Democratic senators and Republican senators would each appoint one member to the redistricting board, and the board would choose a fifth member to serve as the nonvoting chairman. The boundaries would have to be approved by at least three of the four members.
The process is patterned after the State Redistricting Commission, which redraws congressional and legislative boundaries every 10 years. The census figures won’t be available until 2021, setting the first election for 2022.
French said a legal challenge to the law is “a topic of conversation” among commissioners but they haven’t reached a decision. The county will work with the state association, where French is a member of the committee that decides what legal action the organization might take.
“I would want to try litigation first. If that’s not successful, go to the freeholder process,” French said.
After the law takes effect, it would be possible to elect freeholders, who could write a county charter that specifies a three-member board, French said. Reminded that the previous freeholder charter was ultimately rejected by voters, he said that may have been because there was no emergency or crisis in the county to prompt a change.
“This changes that dynamic,” French said.