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News >  Spokane

Spokane County leaders will follow statewide distancing orders as some in state push back

UPDATED: Wed., April 22, 2020

Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, pictured September 12, 2017, say they don’t have the power to loosen statewide measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, pictured September 12, 2017, say they don’t have the power to loosen statewide measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden and Rebecca White The Spokesman-Review

While at least one sheriff and several county commissioners in the state have pushed back against Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order, calling it unconstitutional and refusing to enforce it, Spokane County’s leaders intend to keep following the order.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney posted on Facebook Tuesday evening that his department will not enforce the order he said inhibits religious freedom and constitutional rights.

In a vote Tuesday evening, Franklin County Commissioners also called the order unconstitutional, saying they supported the re-opening of small businesses and construction.

Spokane County Commissioners say they won’t follow Franklin County’s lead because they don’t want to give their constituents false hope about the prospect of change and open those citizens up to legal action from the state.

“If we pass a resolution that says businesses can open up, it’s essentially an empty promise,” said Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns. “It won’t protect them from the state taking action against them.”

Kerns said the governor has threatened legal action against businesses that ignore the stay-home order, and a vote from county commissioners won’t change that.

Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson vowed Wednesday to resist local efforts to overturn the state’s emergency orders.

“We really cannot equivocate on this point,” Inslee said at a news conference. “We cannot have individual law enforcement officers decide arbitrarily which laws they are going to enforce and which laws they are not going to enforce.”

In a joint statement, Inslee and Ferguson criticized the Franklin County commissioners’ “open for business resolution” and Fortney’s announcement he would not enforce laws that keep many businesses closed.

Such actions are “misleading business owners and individuals in their jurisdictions, putting people’s health at risk and potentially putting them on the wrong side of the law,” Inslee and Ferguson said.

Franklin County commissioners don’t have the legal authority to rescind the statewide emergency orders, Inslee said. Only the courts can do that.

“People are entitled to their opinion. What they’re not entitled to is to be the ultimate decider of the Constitution,” Inslee said at the news conference. “No court anywhere in this state or federally has said this order contravenes the Constitution.”

He said the state will follow a three-step process for achieving compliance with the orders, which was announced when they were first issued.

First, state or local officials would contact them to educate them about the law. If they remained open, they could lose their business license. The final step would be legal action.

The vast majority of state residents and businesses are following the orders, he said. So far only one business faces legal action for violating any of the emergency orders, a California-based property rental company that threatened to evict tenants despite the state’s moratorium on evictions during the pandemic.

In the letter, Kathryn Leathers, Inslee’s general counsel, told commissioners to “retract or rescind” the open-for-business resolution adopted Tuesday “and any relevant guidance that purports to supersede state enforcement authority.”

Robert Koch, chair of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, said over the phone Wednesday he and other commissioners will meet with the prosecuting attorney Thursday to discuss their resolution. He said he could not comment on whether they planned to rescind it.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said she and local mayors have continued to advocate for their communities and urged the governor to reconsider his moratorium on construction. But she said they do not have the authority to attempt to re-open the county’s economy on their own.

Both she and Kerns said they had taken an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and did not plan to violate that.

Commissioner Al French said the county plans to work with the governor’s office and other elected officials to open the county’s economy legally.

“We’re not going to do anything illegal or get any of us in a position where we’re in a battle with the state,” he said.

While Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he doesn’t agree with Inslee’s approach to the stay-home order and closure of nonessential businesses, he won’t disregard it. He said those who believe it’s unconstitutional should file an injunction in court instead of leading protests or refusing to comply.

He said deputies are “appealing to the community spirit” and educating people they encounter to get them to voluntarily comply with the order.

“I’m not going to arrest anybody over this unless they want to be blatantly stupid about this,” he said.

Knezovich said he did not plan to shut down protests because doing so could violate participants’ constitutional rights, but he said people should take note if elected leaders or candidates for office are leading those protests and should hold them accountable on Election Day.

Knezovich pointed to state Rep. Matt Shea, of Spokane Valley, as an example of a politician who should work through the courts, rather than with protests, to oppose state closure orders.

Shea and Tim Eyman, a Republican candidate for governor, participated in protests against the measures Wednesday in Spokane.

Reporter Jim Camden contributed to this story

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