Spokane Co. Gov. Revamp

The way Spokane County government is currently organized, the three Spokane County Commissioners are the most powerful county-elected officials in eastern Washington. (See Concentration of Local Power.) Not only do they purport to represent far more people, but the reign of a Spokane County elected official is not term limited, unlike their City of Spokane counterparts. Commissioner Al French, an Architect/Real Estate Developer (according to his Linkedin profile), is now in the middle of his third four-year term as a Spokane County Commissioner. The region recently saw Mr. French flex his political muscle in the firing of SRHD Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz.  

The exceptional power of the three Spokane County Commissioners is destined to diminish in 2022. State government (within the confines of the state constitution) sets the rules for county government structure. In the 2022 election five commissioners from five newly drawn commissioner districts will be elected. This change has been brewing locally and in state government for years in an effort to produce a Spokane County governance structure that better reflects the size of the population governed. In 2018 a law was passed, SUBSTITUTE HOUSE BILL 2887, that detailed the three to five commissioner expansion. It should be no surprise that powerful interests fought tooth and nail against expanding representation in county government. The last battle of this fight concluded in August 2020 when the State Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the new state law (SUBSTITUTE HOUSE BILL 2887) is, indeed, constitutional. Among those arguing against the law were Al French and Josh Kerns, two of the three current Spokane County Commissioners. Al French, as I covered on August 24, still didn’t give up, continuing to speculate on some means to retain his current position. Freeholder process? Delay implementation on account of Covid? Anything! 

So what is the county government reorganization that Commissioners French and Kerns are so anxious to avoid? Currently, each commissioner stands within their commissioner district in a primary election in August every four years (in every even-numbered year either one or two of the commissioners terms run out). In 2018 Al French polled fewer votes in the August primary election within his district than his Democratic challenger, Robbi Katherine Anthony. But here’s the catch: In the current system if, within a district, a candidate is within the top two in the top two primary both those candidates then stand for the General Election in November not just in their district but county-wide. This system pretty much guarantees that, if one party dominates county-wide, all three commissioners will be of that party–and so it has been for some time.

Thanks to SUBSTITUTE HOUSE BILL 2887, starting in 2022 there will be five, not three, commissioners in Spokane County, and, more importantly, they will be elected from five county commissioner districts in the primary and in the general elections. A commissioner candidate will have to pay attention to their district’s electorate, not just the majority party of the county. 

Here’s where the nuts and bolts of Civics come to the fore. It behooves us to pay attention. Note that the current Commissioners, French, Kerns, and Kuney, will be running from a smaller district both in the primary and the general election. It is unlikely but still possible that in the redistricting process two of them could even find themselves living (and competing) in the same district.

The Redistricting Timeline/How the Process Works: The data for the redistricting process comes from the 2020 Census. That data will be used by a redistricting committee of five members assigned the task of establishing the new district boundaries that will stand for the next ten years.Appointments to the redistricting committee will be made between January 1, 2021, and April 15th. The details of the process of appointment and qualifications for membership on the committee can be read at RCW 36.32.053. (That’s the Revised Code of Washington, the law we live under in the State of Washington, part of “the rule of law.” RCW 36.32.053 is a part of that law as revised by SUBSTITUTE HOUSE BILL 2887. These are the nuts and bolts of our governance.)  

Only four of the five members of the redistricting committee are voting members. Two are appointed, one each by the members of each of the “two largest caucuses” (read Democratic and Republican caucuses) of Legislative Districts 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9 (those LDs with territory within Spokane County) of the WA State House of Representatives. The other two are appointed, one each by the Democratic and Republican  caucuses of the same LD list from the WA State Senate. The four of those committee members appoint a non-voting fifth member as chair. (See P.P.S. for the cast of characters that will make up those caucuses.)

That sets up a two-two partisan split on the committee. There is an elaborate set of rules set out in the next Section of the RCW, 36.32.054 specifying the requirements for the districting process, including drafts, public hearings, public comment, and timing requirements. Three out of four votes are necessary to approve a final draft. If the committee deadlocks it must appeal to the (WA) state redistricting commission, which is then tasked with establishing the final boundaries.

This is a part of our representative governance, our “rule of law” for me always has gone on out of sight and out of mind. I now realize this was a mistake. Surely, powerful interests, like the real estate industry, have taken a keen interest in these processes of government while the rest of us have slept. It behooves us to pay attention. 

Action Item: For the redistricting committee that will be formed in early 2021 to do a thorough, fair, and just job of redistricting it will need funding–and that funding needs to come from the budget prepared by the same Spokane County Commissioners whose positions and power may be challenged by the work of the committee. 

It is damnably hard to find on the county website, but the Board of County Commissioners of Spokane County has given notice of a Public Hearing concerning the 2021 budget on Monday, December 7, at 10AM. The commissioners are accepting written comments on the budget via email at gvasquez@spokanecounty.org (Ginna Vasquez is the “Clerk of the Board”). 

Please send an email to the Commissioners in support of ample funding in the 2021 Spokane County Budget for the County redistricting committee to be formed in early 2021 so the committee will be able to do a fair and just job of redistricting. The idea is to let them know their constituents are paying attention.

There will be more on this topic as we go along.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. Two of the three current Spokane County Commissioners have strong ties to building and real estate. French, as noted above, is an “Architect/Real Estate Developer.” Mary Kuney, an ally of Mr. French, is married to Max Kuney IV. He is the president of Kuney Construction, a major local construction firm founded by his great grandfather in 1930. Their list of building projects at that link reads like the history of the region. Josh Kerns, the youngest and least real estate-aligned commissioner, has a background in right wing political campaigns, including those of Matt Shea, John Ahern, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

P.P.S. Composition of the caucuses that will appoint the members of the redistricting committee:
The only Democrats currently serving in Legislative Districts 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9 (those LDs that have territory within Spokane County) are from LD3, central Spokane. Thus, the “Democratic caucus” that will appoint a redistricting committee member from the WA State Senate will be Senator Andy Billig, and the “Democratic caucus” from the WA State House of Representatives will consist of Reps. Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby. 

In contrast, the “Republican caucus” from LDs 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9 for the Senate will consist of the State Senators from LDs 4, 6, 7, and 9, Mike Padden, Jeff Holy, Shelly Short, and Mark Schoesler. For the House of Representatives it will consist of State Reps. Bob McCaslin Jr., Rob Chase; Mike Volz, Jenny Graham; Jacquelin Maycumber, Joel Kretz; Mary Dye and Joe Schmick.