Local Republicans’ 12-year lock on the Spokane County Board of Commissioners could be broken next year or cemented for another decade, depending on the outcome of a historic change in county government.
The number of county commissioners will grow to five from the current three and with that increase will come five new districts with the sole power to elect one of those board members. Under a law that dates to the beginning of statehood, Spokane County commissioners currently run in a district primary but a countywide general election.
That system requiring the final choice to be made by all county voters has helped Republicans hold all three county commissioner seats for the last decade. A computer analysis of the 2020 general election shows that while the overall county vote favored GOP candidates, the average vote for countywide candidates in District 3 favored Democrats while the average vote in Districts 1 and 2 was solidly Republican.
The current boundaries split the city of Spokane, which has become increasingly Democratic in partisan races, among all three districts. Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said those boundaries are based on a process that goes back at least four decades and uses two geographic features – the Spokane River as it flows across the county from the Idaho border and U.S. 195 as it runs south from Interstate 90 – as major boundaries for dividing the county.
Adjusting the boundaries every 10 years after a census to account for population shifts has been an informal process with the auditor making suggestions to the commissioners, who make the final decisions. The adjustments after the 2010 Census brought the population differences between the three districts “incredibly close to zero,” she said.
Population shifts are hard to predict, Dalton added. Twenty years ago, few could have envisioned the growth in the Wandermere area north of the city of Spokane or in Kendall Yards, between the Spokane River and the county courthouse.
“Nobody ever came to us and objected” to the boundary revisions, said Dalton, who is the only Democrat currently elected countywide.
Dividing the roughly 541,000 county residents into five equal districts will be the job of a bipartisan commission named last week by area legislators under a 2018 law.
“I’m not sure what I got myself into,” said Jim McDevitt, a former U.S. district attorney and interim city police chief who currently heads the state Clemency and Pardons Board. He was named to the board by Spokane-area Republicans in the House. “I think we’re plowing new ground.”
Natasha Hill, a local attorney with a practice that includes family, employment and entertainment law, said the redistrict task is “new territory” for her, too. She and Brian McClatchey, an attorney who serves as Spokane City Council director of policy and government relations, were appointed to the commission by the three area Democratic legislators.
Hill was born in Spokane and graduated from Rogers High School before leaving for college, law school and starting her career as an attorney. She returned to Spokane in 2015, and last summer became active in local protests for police reform and social justice in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. After an unsuccessful run for county Democratic Party chair, she thinks she came to the attention of the legislators as “someone who wants to see change.”
She thinks the current system of electing commissioners countywide benefits what she calls “the old guard,” and the new system of being elected by district will provide better representation and give more voters who “feel shut off and shut down” a chance to be heard.
“A lot of voices in the community are just ignored,” she said. In redrawing the lines, the commissioners will have to consider communities of interest and people of color, as well as geography.
Although the city of Spokane is in the middle of the county, splitting it up like a pie among the five districts would be a problem, Hill said.
Robin Ball, a former county Republican Party chairwoman and co-owner of a local gun range appointed by local Senate Republicans, said she followed a previous redistricting process for drawing Spokane County’s legislative districts. One of her goals is to come up with boundaries that “make the most sense and are the least disruptive,” she said.
She doesn’t think the city of Spokane Valley should be divided between two commissioner districts as it is now. While most of that city is south of the Spokane River and in District 2, the four precincts north of the river are in District 1.
Although the final census numbers aren’t available yet, that might be a relatively small change. The city of Spokane Valley’s estimated population of about 104,564 people should be close to the expected size of a commissioner district of about 108,000.
A bigger challenge, Ball said, will be the city of Spokane, which has an estimated population of 227,579, slightly more than the expected population for two districts. In dividing up the city and its nearby suburbs, she hopes the commission can keep neighborhoods together as much as possible while keeping an eye on the small communities outside the metropolitan area along Interstate 90.
Ball said she opposed enlarging the county board to five commissioners when it was on the ballot in 2015. That ballot measure failed, but three years later the Legislature rewrote the law to require any county with more than 400,000 residents to have a five-member board with district elections unless it adopts a special charter through the freeholder process. Spokane County is currently the only Washington county that size without a charter.
“From my perspective, it felt like the commissioners we had in place were getting the job done,” she said. But the three commissioners “have their plates full,” and having five commissioners might provide better representation for voters, she added.
She acknowledged the city of Spokane has become more Democratic in recent elections while much of the rest of the county more Republican. It’s possible the commission will come up with boundaries that create two solidly Democratic districts, two solidly Republican districts, and one swing district that’s up for grabs, she said.
McClatchey said he has no preconceived ideas of what the five districts should be and called the first-ever county redistricting process “a chance to stretch and learn.” Along with making sure the new districts have equal population, are compact and contiguous while not giving an advantage to any candidate or either party, one of the most interesting challenges will be determining communities of interest, he said.
“What do people who live in Millwood have in common with people who live on the South Hill? Is Deer Park more like Cheney or Liberty Lake?” he said. “I hope we can get a lot of input from the public.”
Commission members said they expect to hear from the public at multiple meetings, which may have to be conducted by teleconferencing in the first few months. The four appointed members will have to select a fifth, nonvoting chairman to run the meetings, and at least three of the four appointed members will have to vote for any boundaries they eventually draw.
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