The Spokane County Commissioners, Al French, Josh Kerns, and Mary Kuney, on a per capita basis, wield more power than any in county elected official in the State of Washington. (Some change will come in 2022–I’ll cover that on Wednesday. It’s a story in itself.)
Spokane County is the largest county in the State of Washington that retains the 3-commissioner system of governance set in state law. The estimated population of Spokane County is 522,798.* That is roughly 175,000 people per commissioner, elected (in the general election) countywide. In contrast, the population of the City of Spokane is 222,081 with six city council members, two serving from each of three districts from which each pair is elected. That’s one councilperson for 37,000 people. In addition to these six city council members from the districts, the City of Spokane has a separately elected city council president (Breean Beggs) and an elected mayor (Nadine Woodward) who heads up a separate executive branch. Both the council president and the mayor are elected citywide. In contrast, the three Spokane County commissioners answer only to themselves. Issues are decided by a vote of 2 out of 3, no veto threat, no president. One of the three commissioners (Al French) serves as chair and runs meetings. Furthermore, consider that the three Spokane County Commissioners rule county government as both the executive and the legislature.
The three commissioners of Spokane County have immense influence on what happens throughout Spokane County. The Assessor, Auditor, Clerk, Prosecuting Attorney, and Treasurer of Spokane County all serve under the direction of the three County Commissioners. Visit https://www.spokanecounty.org/ and click on “Your Government” for a quick look at the additional bureaucracy nominally under their control. For contrast, visit https://my.spokanecity.org/ and click on the “spokanecity” button on the upper left. Compare the departments listed for City of Spokane vs. those listed for Spokane County. There are a multitude of examples of government function in which the City depends on the County, for instance, property value assessment, records, and property tax collection. And there are examples of overlap or potential turf issues: city police and county sheriff departments, parks and recreation, solid waste, water management, and public health. In a multitude of ways, Spokane County government overarches the government of the City of Spokane (as well as other cities in the county).
One example is the Spokane Regional Health District Board, which covers the entire county. Half of the twelve member board consists of the three county commissioners and the three members-at-large whom the commissioners appoint. (The other six members are appointed from the councils of the City of Spokane  the City of Spokane Valley  and one representing smaller towns.) That structure gives the commissioners near majority power. Furthermore, the discretionary funds available to the Spokane Regional Health District for things like local epidemiology come from funds under the control of the commissioners. (The SRHD receives outside money, but earmarked for specific uses, i.e. not discretionary.)
Surely the Mayor of the City of Spokane holds more local power than a Spokane County Commissioner, right? Maybe not. Spokane County commissioners serve in four year terms with no term limits. In contrast, elected officials of the City of Spokane, the mayor, the city council president, and city council members also serve four year terms, but each position is limited to two terms. Consider, for instance, that Spokane County Commissioner Al French was elected in 2010 and is now nearly two years into his third term in office. Moreover, Mr. French has a reliable second vote on the Commission in his favored appointee (subsequently confirmed by election in 2018), Commissioner Kuney.
Finally (to be changed in 2022), the method of electing the commissioners is somewhat bizarre. Currently, commissioners stand for election in a top two primary within their district, but then the top two in each each district advance to stand for election in the entire county. Hence, in 2018 Al French garnered fewer votes in the primary in his district than his opponent, Robbi Katherine Anthony, but prevailed in the countywide general.
Most of us, including me, barely distinguish between city and county governments. It is time to pay attention. A county commissioner like Al French holds immense power within the county–and most of us are only vaguely aware of that power. For those of my readers not in Spokane County, have a look at your county’s governance structure. Chances are high (unless you live a highly urbanized county) that you will find a similar three commissioner governance.
More on Wednesday.
Keep to the high ground,
* The next closest Washington State county with only three commissioners is Thurston County with population of 290,536, with each commissioner representing 97,000 people. Thurston County’s largest city is Olympia, the state capitol, with a population of a mere 52,882 (in contrast to the City of Spokane’s 222,000). Information from wikipedia and http://mrsc.org/Home/Research-Tools/Washington-County-Profiles.aspx?orderby=countypop&dir=up.
Note: throughout this post population numbers cited are estimated 2019 numbers.