Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Proposal seeks to make Spokane County Commission meetings more transparent, some concerns remain

The Spokane County Commission could start adding item summaries and supporting documents to its agendas, making it easier for the public to know what the commissioners are talking about in meetings.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Following what the Spokane County Commission is up to every day may soon get a lot easier.

Commissioner Chris Jordan, a Democrat representing west Spokane, is proposing two changes to the county commission’s agendas.

One change would require staff to fill out cover sheets before giving presentations. Those cover sheets would be attached to agendas and summarize the discussion topic, making it far simpler for the public to know what the commissioners are talking about.

Jordan also wants the commissioners to attach supporting documents to agendas. That could include slideshows, spreadsheets and other materials given to the commissioners before meetings.

“The goal is just to have more transparency,” Democratic Commissioner Amber Waldref said.

State law requires governments to publish agendas at least 24 hours before conducting any official business. Many voters will never read one, but at their best, agendas let the public know exactly what elected officials are talking about or voting on at any time.

Few agendas look alike, however.

The city of Spokane’s agendas are thorough, sometimes including more than 1,000 pages of supporting documents, but they’re difficult to follow for a layman. Airway Heights’ agendas are minimalist, rarely topping two pages and offering only terse topic descriptions. Spokane Valley’s agendas are user-friendly and neatly categorized, with detailed background summaries of each item.

The Spokane County Commission’s agendas include contract and resolution documents when an item is up for a final vote, but not before. That means if someone wants to know about a potential new agreement or law before it’s finalized, they have to watch the previous meetings.

The county’s agendas also lack item summaries, which can make it nearly impossible to know what the commissioners are talking about when the item isn’t self-explanatory.

For example, the commissioners will kick off their Tuesday morning meeting with a briefing from the community services department “regarding upcoming state agreements effective July 1, 2023.” Later on, the public works department will provide a “General description of County Forces Authorizations.”

Without foreknowledge, it’s unclear what the state agreements are, or what a force authorization is.

Jordan’s proposal would change that. If the commissioners adopt it, the county’s agendas will look more like Spokane and Spokane Valley’s.

No county commissioner has opposed the idea, but Jordan and Waldref have been the most enthusiastic proponents.

Republican Commissioner Josh Kerns said he has no issue with the proposal and said it would be “handy to have a one-sheet briefing paper” to go along with each agenda item.

Commissioners Al French and Mary Kuney, Kerns’ fellow Republicans, have expressed more hesitancy. Neither French nor Kuney responded to requests for comment.

During the commissioners’ June 12 meeting, Kuney said she wants to ensure any supporting materials attached to agendas are clearly marked as drafts. The public should be able to distinguish between the final version and the working document, she said.

French said he shares Kuney’s concern and worries that sharing unfinished documents could confuse people.

“Are you informing the public or are you confusing the public because it’s a draft and they don’t know where you’re at?” he asked.

Releasing draft documents has “come back to bite me multiple times,” French said.

“My history’s been that that doesn’t serve the public very well,” he said. “They want to know what actually is going to impact them, not coulda, woulda, shouldas.”

The commissioners have begun testing Jordan’s proposal and could formalize it in county law or policy in the coming weeks.

Jordan said he has no issue with marking documents as drafts. He said his intent is simply to give the public more time to comment on contracts and legislation before final votes.

“I’m struggling to see what the downside is,” he said.