Spokane County Government-A Change

On Monday, August 24, I wrote about the mostly unrecognized concentration of power and influence in the hands of the three Spokane County commissioners.

Last Thursday, August 20, as I was researching Monday’s post, news on county governance in Washington State appeared in the Spokesman: Washington Supreme Court: 5 county commissioner bill is constitutional. That title sounds pretty dry. The full story is much more interesting than that title suggests.

In school we were taught about the U.S. Constitution, Congress, the Presidency, and a little about state government. I recall no mention of how county governments are formed and the rules under which they function–and yet this is part of the “rule of law” under which we say we are proud to function in this country. 

It turns out that in the State of Washington the structure and function of county governance is provided for in Article XI, Section 4 and 5 of the 118 page WA State Constitution. It states, “The legislature shall establish a system of county government, which shall be uniform throughout the state except as hereinafter provided, and by general laws shall provide for township organization.” In 1948, Constitutional Amendment 21 added an elaborate process by which a particular county might establish a different “Home Rule” charter for its county government different from the basic 3-commissioner system specified in state law. (I suspect this amendment was passed to allow a densely populated county to adopt a form of local government more suited to a population center than the 3-commissioner system specified in state law. Since 1948 and the 21st amendment, 7 of the 39 Washington counties adopted “Home Rule” charters. King County, the most populous county, was first, in 1969.)

In 2018 a law with bi-partisan sponsorship (from all three state legislative districts that are wholly contained in Spokane County, i.e. LDs 3,4, and 6) was enacted by the legislature that required counties without a “Home Rule” charter and with a population over 400,000 to do two things: expand from 3 to 5 county commissioners and to elect those commissioners by districts drawn in the county instead of by county wide general election. You can read the law here. The law was to come into effect for the 2022 election., The law passed and was signed without much fanfare in Olympia as a sensible acknowledgment of the need to expand county government in response to population growth. 

Case closed, one might have thought. Well, no. It turns out the Spokane County Commissioners (and Washington State county commissioners in general), when their power was threatened, didn’t take it lying down. Spokane County Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns along with the Washington State Association of Counties filed suit in February, 2019, to declare the new law “unconstitutional” (under the state constitution). The suit was first filed with the Spokane County Superior Court where the commissioners’ case was dismissed by Judge Maryann Moreno six months later (August, 2019). The commissioners appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court. The case was argued before the Supreme Court in June, 2020. Finally, unanimously agreeing with Judge Moreno and slapping down the commissioners’ suit, last Thursday the Court handed down a unanimous (9-0) decision that the 2018 state law expanding commissioner seats in counties with a population over 400,000 from 3 to 5 is constitutional. In legal terms the Supremes granted the State‚Äôs motion for summary judgment and dismissed the commissioners’ case “with prejudice.” The “with prejudice” terminology means “we’re done with this, it’s settled, don’t bring this up again.”

Case closed, right? Well, maybe not quite. Shortly after Spokane County v. State of Washington was argued before the State Supreme Court on June 25, 2020, powerful Commissioner Al French, perhaps sensing that the argument had not gone well, requested that the state legislature postpone the expansion of commissioner seats (and changing to districtwide as opposed to countywide general election of commissioners) by two years. He pointed to Covid-19, census delay, and county finances as his rational. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that of the three Spokane County commissioners currently sitting, the only one up for re-election in 2022 under the current system is Mr. French. Delaying implementation of the law would see him through one more county-wide election. 

And that’s still not quite all. The Spokesman reported in the article on the Supreme Court decision, “French said he had not yet talked to Kerns or Kuney to see if they were also interested in pursuing a freeholder process.” Mr. French is wondering if he can pull together the complex process described in the Washington State constitution by which he could remodel Spokane County governance before the expansion law set in. That statement rings of a certain desperation.

Al French, arguably the most powerful elected official in Spokane County, has held office for nearly ten years. (Commissioners are not limited to two terms like City of Spokane officials.) Commissioner Mary Kuney was likely French’s favored appointee in 2017 to replace Shelly O’Quinn. She generally takes her cues from her senior commissioner. The third commissioner, Josh Kerns, running from the right of an appointed Republican, Nancy McLaughlin, was elected to office in 2016. 

Both Kuney (finishing out the last two years of O’Quinn’s four year term) and Kerns are up for countywide re-election in November. They are opposed by Ted Cummings and accountant David Green. Visit that link. It is time to question the overriding power of Al French and consider some new blood among the Spokane County Commissioners.

Keep to the high ground,

One more note on the excess of power and prestige vested in the Spokane County Commissioners:

A Spokane County Commissioner salary is $110,693 (as of 2017). In contrast, the annual salary of a Spokane City Councilperson in 2017 was $45,100.