5 commissioner bill constitutional, judge rules
Aug. 16, 2019 Updated Fri., Aug. 16, 2019 at 9:54 p.m.
A law that requires Spokane County to split into five county commissioner districts doesn’t violate the state constitution, a Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
Judge Maryann Moreno rejected the argument by the current commissioners and a former one, as well as the state Association of Counties, that the Legislature overstepped its constitutional authority when it passed a law that requires Spokane to go from three to five county commissioners in 2022.
The county needed to prove the new law violates the constitution beyond a reasonable doubt, and Moreno said she was “not satisfied that the county has met its burden.”
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the prime sponsor of the legislation, said Moreno’s ruling upholds bipartisan work in the Legislature to give people more representation.
“This is an opportunity for a growing county like Spokane to ensure citizens have a more direct voice in their government,” Riccelli said.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Kuney said she was disappointed Moreno ruled the law was constitutional. The county and the state association “will be considering our options for appealing the trial court’s ruling directly to the Washington State Supreme Court.”
Commissioner Al French, a long-time opponent of the five-commissioner proposals, said the Superior Court process was a necessary step in getting to the Supreme Court, which will “ultimately determine” the law’s constitutionality.
Spokane has had the state’s basic county government structure – three commissioners elected in their districts in a primary but countywide in the general election – since statehood. The new law requires five districts where commissioners stand for election in both the primary and the general.
Voters have turned down efforts to change that system through a charter and in 2015 turned down a ballot proposition to expand the number of commissioners to five.
But supporters of the five-commissioner bill that passed in last year’s Legislature argued that some voters were worried about how the new commissioner districts would be drawn, and wrote the law with a bipartisan commission to draw the lines, patterned after the state’s congressional redistricting system.
Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, said he co-sponsored the bill to avoid having a court draw new county district lines, as happened in a challenge to equal representation in Yakima. The law potentially will “save the county from spending millions of dollars in hefty legal fees,” he said.
The law is written to require counties with 400,000 or more people to have five commissioners if they haven’t adopted a charter with a different form of government. The county argued that was unconstitutional because it would make Spokane the only county with five commissioners, as all other counties that have more people have adopted charter governments.
Moreno ruled, however, that doesn’t make the law unconstitutional, because it applies to all counties over 400,000, even though Spokane is the only one that currently fits that description.
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