Spokane’s county commission is getting bigger and more representative. Here’s why that’s important.
You may have heard the Spokane County Board of Commissioners is changing, but we’ve had a lot of readers and listeners ask a more fundamental question: “what does the commission even do in the first place?”
The short answer is: a lot. Commissioners wield far greater power than you’d guess by the amount of news coverage or political activism focused on their activities. Part of that is because media coverage of issues like housing and homelessness often focuses on city responses. Another big reason is that the county commission conducts most of its public meetings during regular business hours when it’s hard to rally working people to speak out on decisions that impact their communities.
The long answer follows, but before that, we need to talk about changes not just to the size of the commission, but the structure by which we elect our commissioners.
What is changing and what will it mean?
In mid-July, ballots will drop for Spokane County’s first ever five-seat county commission race. Until now the number had been three, and for a county our size, that’s a little absurd. Pierce County, home to Tacoma, has seven county councilors. King County has a nine member council.
The additional slots mean Spokane County joins every other large Washington county in electing a board of at least five members. It also means commissioners can talk to each other without having to hold a public meeting. Currently, conversations between two commissioners are subject to open meetings laws because two commissioners constitute a voting majority.
Another big change is in the general election. Historically, each individual district voted on its representative in the primary, but in the general election, everyone in the county voted on all the districts. That means that, if you currently live in the old district 2, where Al French is the incumbent, you didn’t just vote on French’s race, you also voted for the leaders of district 1 and 3. In a Republican-leaning county, this left a tough hill to climb for Democrats. Despite how progressive Spokane City has become, the county commission has been entirely Republican since 2010.
In the new system, if you live in district 2, you only vote for the candidates who will directly represent you. This should help create a commission that better reflects the population of the county.
For background on the actual candidates, a box at the bottom of this article has links to recent candidate forums and coverage from local outlets.
Death, taxes and lots in between
Spokane’s county government wields immense influence over nearly every aspect of civic life no matter where you live in the county – think death (County Medical Examiner) and taxes (County Assessor). The tremendous power of counties in Washington is set out in the state constitution and predates statehood.
In the late 19th century, counties had three main roles: providing roads, establishing systems of land title and ownership and administering courts, said Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at University of Washington who teaches courses on local government. “The role of counties evolved, particularly in the 1930s, because of the Depression and they were charged then by the state with providing social services,” he said. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the role of county governments continued to grow as the state delegated them additional responsibilities.
This broad mandate means that the county is likely involved in an issue you care about. According to Eric Johnson, the executive director for the Washington State Association of Counties, counties have three core areas of responsibility that commissioners are required to raise revenue and budget for:
- Delivering services on behalf of the state
- Providing countywide and regional services
- Acting as the municipal government for areas outside of cities
Underneath those broad umbrellas are vitally important infrastructural and institutional responsibilities:
State services delivered by counties
- Election administration
- Collection and assessment of property taxes
- Vehicle licensing
- Marriage licensing
- The trial court system, which includes the county prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices, and the superior court and juvenile courts.
Countywide and regional services
- Emergency 911 dispatch
- Public transportation management
- Public health services, including control of the Spokane Regional Health District and administration of public health standards like restaurant inspections
- Veterans services
- Agricultural education and business support
Municipal services in unincorporated communities
- Law enforcement through the sheriff's office
- Bridge and road construction and maintenance
- Land use planning including zoning, building codes and permitting
- Parks and recreation
- Waste and sewer management and facilities
Carrying out these core functions of government doesn’t come cheap. The county government’s budget for this year is over $575 million. To carry it all out, the county employs more than 2,000 people, making it one of the largest employers in the region.
“No one is sitting in a state penitentiary that didn’t go through the county judicial system that [counties] administer on behalf of the state.” - Eric Johnson
The top expenditures within that budget show how the current commission prioritizes its work. Nearly 30% of county funds go to roads ($65 million), the county jail system ($52 million) and the Spokane County Sheriff's Department ($50 million).
Spokane County commissioners hold both the purse strings to local government and the administrative authority. Unlike Spokane City, where the mayor is the executive and the city council is the legislature, county commissioners serve as both the legislative and executive branches of government. That additional executive authority means there are fewer checks and balances on commissioner power – an unelected county CEO, who reports to the commissioners, is the head administrator in the county.
While county powers are different in unincorporated areas versus cities, the county plays a vital role in deciding just how rural growing areas will remain. Under the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA), Spokane County is responsible for setting urban growth boundaries that influence development density on the outskirts of urban areas. In the 30+ years since the law went into effect, the county has repeatedly sparred with the state and anti-sprawl groups and is now under a settlement that limits the county’s discretion in opening unincorporated areas to denser development.
These development and growth decisions have cascading impacts on the environment and the housing stock in Spokane. Extending growth boundaries can add housing in a county that’s severely in need of more units, but it also fragments wildlife habitat, increases fire danger in wildland-urban interface areas, adds traffic to unequipped rural road systems and eliminates farmland that supports rural economies. Sprawl also increases infrastructural costs for things like roads, water and sewer. These costs are borne by everyone in the county, so new, low density development actually costs Spokanites in denser areas money. (For a recent example of a GMA dispute checkout this Inlander article.)
Commissioners work full time and get paid far better than other local elected representatives at $120,000 a year.
In addition to managing and administering county funds, commissioners have major influence over the makeup of county and regional governmental organizations. County commissioners, specifically Al French, led the controversial firing of Spokane Regional Health Officer Bob Lutz. Earlier this year the commission reshaped the Spokane County Health Board, reeducing board seats from 12 to 8 and eliminating Spokane and Spokane Valley’s representatives. County commissioners also administer, and in many cases hold seats on, more than 30 local and regional boards including: the Behavioral Health Advisory Board, Spokane Transit Authority and Spokane Housing Authority.
With power that ranges from decisions with community-wide impact, like choosing who heads the county public health department in a pandemic, to household-level impacts, like setting building standards, the county commission is thoroughly involved in each person in the Spokane area’s life. Because of the breadth of influence the county has, there’s a ton of ways for the public to get involved in county government, whether it be applying for board membership, attending committee meetings or even volunteering for a clean-up day sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Department.
What’s important to understand, said Johnson, is that the responsibilities of county government are constantly changing as the state directs them to implement new policies. “The state adopts public policy that only gets implemented on the ground,” he said, “and that’s almost always by local government.
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Expected impacts of the new structure
The changes currently being implemented were part of a 2018 law championed by Spokane State Rep. Marcus Riccelli.
The law mandates that all counties with more than 400,000 people also have at least five county commissioners. Perhaps surprisingly, it passed with broad bipartisan support in the state legislature (from Seattle-area progressives Reps. to Spokane Valley’s secession-minded hyper conservative Matt Shea).
The jump to five commissioners required the creation of new districts, which were finalized last October. Those changes are expected to lead to a more politically diverse board. If partisan trends hold from the 2020 Governor’s race, two districts should remain Republican strongholds with one district that seems solidly Democratic. The remaining two districts might prove to be battlegrounds, with a 8.6-point democratic lean in district 2 and an 8.2% Republican lean in District 5.
The county commission, led by the longest serving commissioner Al French, challenged the new commission make-up with the support of WSAC. In the end, Washington’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law in late-2020.
Criticisms of the new structure
Spokane County is the only county that was forced to change its commission make-up in response to the 2018 law. Johnson, the head of WSAC, said that the legislation set a dangerous precedent in terms of allowing the state to micromanage the format of local government.
Johnson also argued that the new format actually hurts people’s ability to influence local government.
“County government lacks checks and balances… it does not allow for that traditional three-part government,” he said. Because each district only elects one commissioner, and there are no countywide elections for the executive branch, every county decision can be made without the support of the commissioner you elected.
“What’s going to happen now in Spokane County is that people that you never had a chance to vote for will be making decisions.”
Support for the new structure
Proponents of the new districts and district-based election process believe it will lead to a county commission that’s more representative of the county as a whole and responsive to each area’s needs.
“What we did was look at communities of interest,” said Natasha Hill, an attorney who served on the redistricting committee and is currently running for U.S. Representative as a Democrat. That meant including areas like the Hillyard and East Central neighborhoods in District 2. Each of those communities have similar interests when it comes to development of infrastructure like the North-South Freeway and other county services like transportation. It also means areas on the West Plains, like Airway Heights and Medical Lake, which have similar development concerns will now have a representative who’s directly responsive to them, Hill said.
The new districts improve representation for minority communities in Spokane. People who live in the city, “should have an opportunity to get somebody who represents their policy and platforms when it comes to politics into those county commissioners' seats, as opposed to having their voices drowned out in a county-wide vote,” Hill said. “That encourages folks like me – people of color who have grown up here generationally – to see a platform and opportunity where we can actually get involved, step up and actually get elected. We now have a district that we can get behind us.”
— edited by Luke Baumgarten
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