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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Whatever happens Nov. 8, the new County Commission looks like a win

The final map creating the new Spokane County Commission districts.  (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
The final map creating the new Spokane County Commission districts. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

If there is anything we’ve learned about Spokane County government these past few weeks – as officials who ignored homelessness for years have suddenly awakened to it, blinking like Rip Van Winkle – it’s that it’s way past time for a reboot of Spokane County government.

Luckily, we’ve got one coming.

By next year, the Spokane County Commission will have five members instead of three.

We’ll soon see who will fill those seats, but however the elections break, it will be a major improvement: A more balanced representation of the community, with elections by district. An end to the single-party star chamber, distinguished by debate-free unanimous votes. A greater opportunity for discussion, disagreement and openness, for accountability and transparency, as opposed to three commissioners in lockstep, unveiling prepackaged decisions.

For years, the operations of the county commission have played out in a strangely quiet, almost unnoticed manner in the public square, especially compared to a city government that dominates public attention, press coverage and political debate.

There are many reasons for this. Public access to City Council meetings is simply far superior to County Commission meetings, for one thing – the council offers deep, informative agendas beforehand, it’s easy to watch meetings by video stream, the council chambers are a welcoming place for the public to watch or testify, and there is an emphasis on explanation and discussion that soars beyond what you’ll find in the cramped room where the county commission unveils its 3-0 votes.

Some of the attention deficit has to do with the way that influences the local press, which has never covered the County Commission as much, or as prominently, as the City Council. When I arrived at the S-R in 1999, our county government reporter would regularly point out that the county was making important decisions for half a million residents, but that his stories often played inside the paper while turn-of-the-screw news out of City Hall went on A1.

That has often been the case across all local media. There are a lot of reasons for this, but a big one is the absence of real debate on the commission, especially in the past decade or so.

City Hall has often been riven with controversies; the City Council has often been the scene of robust debates and intense disagreement; the dynamic between the executive and the legislative is often in tension over policy decisions.

This conflict can make progress difficult, and it sometimes boils down into a kind of gridlock. But in terms of the public’s understanding of what the city is doing, and what the different council members and administration officials think about what the city is doing, citizens are much better served by public conflict than smooth stealth.

The county’s smooth, stealthy operations have slithered to the forefront these past few weeks, as county commissioners, drawn on a leash by the sheriff, have blundered into the Camp Hope discourse.

This has given the situation at Camp Hope a strange dual reality. On the one hand, there is the actual progress of housing individuals being carried out steadily and seriously, if less speedily than some might wish, by the state-funded effort to move every individual indoors,

On the other, we have performances at podiums and in political chambers, where the local officials whose long-standing failures helped get us here stride forth to proclaim themselves our saviors and play tug of war with the state.

“The homelessness issue is an embarrassment to the community,” County Commissioner Al French said last week. “A lot of people are frustrated at the lack of leadership that has taken it to get us to where we’re at.”

This, from the unofficial leader of Team Leadership Lack. There is almost nothing that Woodward got right about homelessness when she ran for office, but she was on point when she complained that regional governments have done far too little to address homelessness, leaving the problem almost solely to the city.

The biggest failure on that front, by far, has been the County Commission.

But now – via an incoherent series of actions ranging from intemperate threats to calls for cooperation – we’re supposed to see the county as the leaders on the issue, taking on our collective embarrassment.

All three of these commissioners are on the ballot. Only French faces a serious challenge, from Maggie Yates, who oversaw the county’s criminal justice reform efforts until leaving, following repeated opposition to new ideas from the powers that be.

Yates faces a battle, but she picked up the most votes in the primary, she’s running a strong campaign and the third-place GOP primary candidate has endorsed her – it will be one of the most exciting races to watch as the returns come in.

Kuney faces an intraparty opponent she beat handily in August, and Kerns is unopposed. In the two additional races, Democrats Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan each posted primary wins over their Republican opponents, Michael Cathcart and Kim Plese.

Even if all three incumbents remain, the new County Commission seems all but certain to leave behind the smooth, stealthy pattern. Merely adding voices will, in and of itself, mark a big step forward.

It’s past time for the change.

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