Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

County commissioners vote to sue state over commission expansion

Al French socializes at Spokane County Public Works building on Nov. 27, 2018. He said this week he wants to “mine the community for good ideas” about how to spend coronavirus relief funding from the federal government. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to file a lawsuit to block expansion of the board from three members to five.

The five commissioner bill, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee this year, would require counties with populations of more than 400,000 residents to have a board of five commissioners elected by district in the primary and general elections. The law would go into effect in 2022.

Spokane County is joining litigation with the Washington State Association of Counties, whose board of directors voted unanimously at its annual conference to file a lawsuit challenging validity of the five commissioner legislation.

The county will be using WSAC’s attorneys, and the association will pay legal fees.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the county is joining litigation with WSAC because the five commissioner law violates a state constitutional requirement that counties have a uniform structure of government, unless voters adopt a charter through a constitutionally approved process.

“The concern is that if the Legislature can alter the constitution and target one county, they can target all of us,” he said at a commissioner meeting Tuesday. “They can start to create different standards for our counties that operate across the state, which really violates the uniformity provisions that were envisioned as part of the state constitution.”

Spokane County residents in 2015 voted against a measure to expand the board of commissioners to five members. Spokane County, however, is the only county in the state with a population of more than 400,000 that has three commissioners. The county went through a freeholder process to draft a county charter, but that was rejected by voters in 1995.

French said the lawsuit represents a commitment to defending the vote of county residents.

“Spokane County voters have the right to determine their form of government just like any other county, and that right has been taken away from us,” he said. “We are going to fight to get it back and, fortunately, we’ve been joined in that fight by WSAC.”

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the primary sponsor of the bill, told The Spokesman-Review last week the lawsuit is unfortunate because WSAC and the county are spending time fighting a law that would allow better representation for the area.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney indicated during her re-election campaign she was opposed to the board expansion because commissioners would only represent their district, which is 20 percent of the county.

Kuney said the lawsuit was a prominent topic among voters during her re-election campaign this year.

“When I was out talking to voters this past year, this was definitely an area that people talked about and weren’t happy to see the change that was coming to them,” she said.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said that by allowing the five commissioner law to go into effect without receiving a constitutional ruling from the courts, it could put the county and constituents at risk.

“Because if this were to not be challenged and we get to 2022, we elect five commissioners to fill those seats and then somebody challenges the constitutionality and it is overturned, then we’re in uncharted waters,” he said. “We’re in a situation where we just elected five commissioners, and we only have three seats to fill.

“I think this is something that brings certainty to the county. It’s something that brings certainty to the constituents, and the only way we are going to get that is by getting a ruling from the courts on the validity of the constitutionality of this piece of legislation.”

French said WSAC and the county aim to file the lawsuit by the end of the year, but could file at the beginning of next year.

“I do expect that this litigation will go all the way to the state Supreme Court,” he said. “I don’t expect a quick ruling, but I do expect a very diligent process and, ultimately, it will be up to the Supreme Court to determine whether it’s constitutional or not.”