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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In rare fight, Spokane County commissioners argue over move to control regional meeting agendas

The Spokane County Courthouse is seen on a sunny spring day in 2020.  (LIBBY KAMROWSKI/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Spokane County commissioners last week made a move that will help them consolidate power if Democrats win election to the county’s most powerful office this fall.

On Jan. 11, the commissioners approved a resolution that changes how they operate in two key ways.

First, the resolution states that commissioners will now select a chairperson by majority vote, as opposed to rotating through themselves. Second, the resolution states if two or more commissioners are attending a regional meeting, a majority of the commissioners have to approve the meeting agenda.

Commissioners Mary Kuney, Josh Kerns and Al French all agree the first change is a good idea.

Historically, the commissioners have taken turns serving as chair. For instance, Kuney took over as chair this month on the heels of Kerns, who had taken the helm from French. The chair doesn’t technically have any more power than the other commissioners, but they do have more responsibilities. The chair also runs meetings and acts as the face of the county.

Ending the equitable rotation would make political sense for Republicans. Next year, the commission will shift from three to five seats. Two of the new commissioner districts favor Democrats, giving Democrats a chance to have representation on the commission for the first time in more than a decade. By selecting a chair with a majority vote, the commissioners are, in all likelihood, effectively preventing a Democrat from running commission meetings in the near future.

But while changing the chair selection process wasn’t controversial, the second part of the resolution led to a rare public fight among the commissioners.

From now on, if two or more commissioners attend a regional meeting, a majority of the commissioners have to sign off on the agenda for that meeting.

It’s an important change with the transition to five commissioners looming on the horizon because it means if two Democratic commissioners attend a regional meeting next year, the three Republican commissioners will be able to set their agenda.

French, who did not respond to requests for comment, came up with the resolution and presented it to Kuney and Kerns during the commissioners’ Jan. 10 meeting. The resolution never appeared on the commissioners’ Monday or Tuesday agendas.

During the Jan. 10 meeting, French said he wrote the resolution because he felt Kuney had organized a regional meeting behind his back.

“I don’t like surprises,” he said. “I don’t like surprises.”

French was referring to the Council of Governments meeting the county hosted on Friday. The Council of Governments is a gathering among the county, Spokane, Spokane Valley and the region’s other municipalities. It was an annual get-together before the pandemic, but Friday’s meeting was the first since 2019.

Kuney arranged the public meeting in order to have a regional discussion about how Spokane County and local municipal governments could best spend their cumulative $208 million in American Rescue Plan funding. The American Rescue Plan is a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Congress passed last year to help the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Council of Governments was primarily a group brainstorming session. No local governments made any decisions during the meeting on how they’d spend their American Rescue Plan allotments.

French said Kuney never should have arranged the meeting, and set the agenda, without consulting with both him and Kerns.

“Nobody asked me what my opinion was,” French said. “This is a board activity, it’s a regional activity and yet I’ve been asked to provide no input at all on what’s going to happen this Friday.”

Kuney said in an interview that she informed French that the meeting would take place. She also apologized to him and Kerns multiple times during the commissioners’ Jan. 10 and Jan. 11 meetings.

“There was no ill intent on my part, I’m not trying to not have anybody be part of it,” she said.

Even if French wrote the resolution in response to a perceived slight, the change could have significant ramifications for future county commissioners.

Kerns, who voted for the resolution alongside French and against Kuney, said allowing the majority to approve regional agendas will be critical when the commission moves to five members. He described it as a “safeguard for the board as a whole.”

“When we go to five, unfortunately partisanship is going to be more of an issue than it is today, I mean, that’s just a fact,” Kerns said in the Jan. 10 meeting. “And if somebody wants to go – somebody in the minority party – decides, ‘I’m going to (call)a Council of Governments to talk about X, Y and Z,’ then the rest of us say, ‘No you’re not.’ ”

Kuney pointed out that the language in the resolution specifically refers to scenarios wherein two commissioners attend a regional meeting, not a majority of the commissioners. Kerns and French said the language could “potentially” be changed in 2023.

The resolution appears to give commissioners incentive to attend meetings alone, Kuney said.

“I was trying to be inclusive,” she said during the commissioners’ Jan. 11 meeting. “If we all want to be exclusive, then I think we need to state that publicly in this document, that commissioners have the right to do whatever they want to do as long as it’s only one.”

Kuney said during the Jan. 11 meeting that French put forth the resolution to “chastise” her for convening the Council of Governments.

“I think there’s some emotion that’s been brought into this,” she said. “I think we need to be very objective as we’re making policy decisions.”