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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Two Spokane County Commissioners say they won’t support a new charter to halt 5 commissioner bill, citing lack of support from constituents

The Spokane County Courthouse pictured in 2015. Al French said he will no longer pursue a freeholder process to stop a state mandated expansion from three to five commissioners, after the two other county commissioners declined to vote on putting the process on the ballot.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A proposal to make a new county charter to halt a state law that will take counties from three to five commissioners won’t go forward after two Spokane County commissioners objected, saying there didn’t appear to be strong backing from the public.

A bipartisan bill requiring the Spokane County Board of County Commissioners to expand from three to five members and change elections from voting by district in the primary and countywide in the general to voting by district in both elections is slated to go into effect in 2022.

Supporters of the bill argue it will improve the ratio of constituents to elected officials. There are currently about 174,000 people represented by each commissioner and with five commissioners there will be a little over 100,000 constituents for every commissioner. Supporters also argue it could prevent voters from being disenfranchised and avoid Voting Rights Act lawsuits other counties have faced.

Detractors argue the state forced the county to adopt the change without allowing voters to weigh in.

Current county commissioners, as well as one past commissioner, have opposed the change and sued the state in hopes of stopping the expansion. They lost in August when the Washington Supreme Court ruled in the state’s favor.

After the loss in court, Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he planned to pursue a freeholder process, in which voters would elect a group of freeholders who could write a new charter to change the number of commissioners.

A freeholder is a county resident elected to help write a new charter to change how county government operates.

A freeholder process would require at least two elections, one to elect the freeholders, and one to adopt the new charter that the group developed. French said the voters opposed adding new commissioners in 2015, and should have an opportunity to weigh in on an expansion again. The commissioner expansion vote in 2015 was backed at the time by several county commissioners, but was voted down by 54%.

“We’re going to either put it on the ballot, or let the Legislature control what happens in Spokane County,” French said.

French presented a proposal to his fellow commissioners on Tuesday to put a freeholder election on the April ballot, but did not receive support from either of his cohorts.

Commissioners Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney said a proposal like that should be led by community members, not county commissioners.

“I really think this should be citizen-led,” Kerns said. “I’m not going to doubt that there are people that would support a freeholder process, but people aren’t reaching out to me and urging me to do this.”

In an interview before the meeting, Kuney echoed that sentiment.

“If the citizens really want it, it’s something the citizens need to put forward,” she said. “Whether it’s them coming and talking to us and we put on some workshops, or through the petition process.”

French argued that the other two commissioners and the local state legislators who supported the change were ignoring the will of the voters. He said he did not plan to start a petition process because it would be difficult and possibly unsafe to gather signatures during a pandemic.

The five-commissioner bill was sponsored by Spokane legislators, Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli and Republican Sen. Jeff Holy, and was supported by every Spokane legislator except Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley.

Several legislators who supported the law said in past interviews one of the largest changes, district-based voting, was a way to preemptively address potential Voting Rights Act issues. The county’s voting by district in the primary and countywide in the general election could disenfranchise some groups.

In 2016, Pasco, which previously had at-large city council elections, changed its election process after acknowledging its system violated the Voting Rights Act, and the city of Yakima also changed elections after similar issues. Yakima County, which has an identical election system to Spokane County, was sued in July for allegedly violating the Voting Rights Act and diluting Latinx (a gender-neutral term for Latino or Latina) votes.

Political leaders have argued over Spokane County’s form of government for decades. There have been several efforts to change the county’s charter or the number of commissioners, with the most recent being a failed attempt in 2015. Two former county commissioners, Shelly O’Quinn and Todd Mielke, both Republicans, led the charge to expand the number of commissioners, arguing the amount of work and ratio of citizen to elected official was no longer practical.

The 2015 attempt at expanding the county commission also had one major difference from the bill passed at the state level: All five commissioners would still be elected countywide during the general election and by district in the primary. It had bipartisan support and opposition.

Supporters and critics of the 2015 expansion noted that the change could result in five Republicans leading the county, because some of the county districts have elected Democrats, but Democrats struggle to win an election countywide.

French’s district, for example, elected a Democrat in the 2018 primary when first-time candidate Robbi Anthony won by 10%, but French won in the countywide general election by more than 13%. Kuney and Kerns, both Republicans, were both on the ballot this year, but won in the primary and the general election.

French said accusations that he is pushing back against the bill for political reasons and the Voting Rights Act concerns are “red herrings,” and said his aim is to ensure that voters have a say. He said if freeholders said they wanted more commissioners, he would respect their decision.

He accused legislators who voted for the bill – almost every legislator from Spokane – of doing so for political reasons, such as wanting to become county commissioners themselves.

In a phone call Wednesday, Riccelli, the primary sponsor of the bill, noted that most of the pushback against it since the Supreme Court decision has been from French alone, whom he argued had the most to lose politically from switching to a district-based election system.

“The fight against this has been political,” Riccelli said. “He lost in the district election in his primary and I can understand why he would be concerned. I think he has been controlling county policy heavy handedly and adding more voices would be a threat.”

French said he disagreed with the outcome, but he accepted the other county commissioners’ decision to not pursue a new charter.

Under the current election schedule, redistricting will occur over the next year and new county commissioners will be elected starting in 2022.