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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawsuit challenges state law expanding Spokane County Commission from three to five members

This aerial photo shows the Spokane County Courthouse on Oct. 26, 2013, in front of the Public Safety Building and the Spokane County Jail. Spokane police say an intern in the city prosecutor’s office was assaulted Tuesday morning in a women’s restroom in the Public Safety Building. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County has joined a lawsuit challenging a state law that will expand the county commission from three to five members.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Spokane County Superior Court. The plaintiffs include the county as well as Commissioner Al French, former Commissioner John Roskelley and the Washington State Association of Counties.

The lawsuit challenges a measure that would require Spokane County to elect two additional members to its governing board in 2022. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, and Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March 2018 after passing both chambers of the Legislature with veto-proof majorities.

While it technically applies statewide, the law would only affect Spokane County because it has more than 400,000 residents, lacks a charter and still operates under Washington’s original, three-commissioner form of government.

The plaintiffs said the law inappropriately singles out Spokane County, violating a state constitution requirement that all counties have a uniform government structure unless voters adopt a charter through a constitutionally approved process.

“All other non-charter counties with more than 300,000 people have the right to hold a vote by the people to determine whether to increase the number of commissioners from three to five,” said Roskelley, a Democrat who served on the Spokane County Commission from 1995 to 2004, in a prepared statement. “The Legislature flagrantly took away this right from Spokane County voters to determine the future of their local government, and this is unconstitutional.”

Supporters have argued the law would improve voter representation and save the county money by heading off a legal challenge under the Voting Rights Act over countywide election of commissioners.

“The system worked decades ago but doesn’t work for the current situation, and I think that’s why you saw such a bipartisan push to get this out of the Legislature,” Riccelli said Wednesday. “I think that our democracy should be about getting representation closer to the people. … Our county has outgrown the current form of government.”

The current Spokane County commissioners – Republicans French, Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns – have said the new law ignores the will of voters who defeated a ballot measure calling for a five-member commission in 2015.

They also have argued that additional commissioner salaries would be too expensive for a county government that barely averted a $9.4 million budget shortfall last year.

However, the independent commission that sets commissioner salaries could lower pay based on the new division of labor.

And French and Kuney have contended the law means each commissioner will only represent 20 percent of voters since they will run only in districts. Currently, all three commissioners are answerable to all voters, they argue.

“This legislation will increase costs for taxpayers to the tune of half a million dollars a year,” French said in a statement, “and, worse, it will diminish voter representation from 100 percent under the present form of government to 20 percent under the new form of government.”

Riccelli countered that voting by district makes elected leaders more accountable to their constituents, and he defended the redistricting committee that would be created under the new law.

“I think we put forward a really solid, bipartisan redistricting process similar to what the state does,” Riccelli said.

He noted that three-member commissions make it difficult for any two commissioners to communicate with each other because they represent a quorum.

“Right now, if two people talk to each other it’s a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act,” Riccelli said.

Kuney acknowledged that additional commissioners might spread out the workload of governing, but she insisted Spokane County voters should make that call.

“I can tell you in my case, there’s more committees that I could be on that I’m not on because I don’t have time,” Kuney said. “Is that an argument for having another commissioner? I don’t know. I feel like we represent our constituents well at this point in time.”

All 39 Washington counties pay dues to be a part of the Washington State Association of Counties. Eric Johnson, the executive director of the organization, said members voted unanimously to move forward with the lawsuit. The complaint is signed by attorneys with Pacifica Law Group in Seattle and by John Driscoll, the chief civil attorney in the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.

At issue, Johnson said, is not whether Spokane County is better off with three or five commissioners, but who gets to make that decision. He noted that voters in seven counties – King, Clark, Clallam, Pierce, San Juan, Snohomish and Whatcom – have adopted charters with varying government structures, including nonpartisan positions and commissions with up to seven members.

“We really believe that there is one way for each county to change their form of government, and that is this charter process,” Johnson said. “And it’s up to the citizens of each county to determine the composition of their legislative authority.”