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It's well past time for five county commissioners

In Our Opinion

 


Plenty has changed in the last 25 years in Spokane County.

Most notably, we’ve grown by nearly 120,000 people, some of the most rapid growth ever.

In the upcoming Aug. 5 primary election, the citizens of the West Plains will select the top two candidates among three to move onto the November general election and face off for District 3 county commissioner. Voters will select between incumbent Al French, former commissioner Bonnie Mager and newcomer, Mary Lou Johnson.

But while much has changed in the past quarter century, one important thing has not. That’s the need to expand the number of commissioners from three to five.

And while we’re at it, there also needs to be a change in how once the “survivors” emerge from the primary they are elected to office by voters within their district— not by the county at large.

Should the residents of the Spokane Valley elect our representative on the West Plains — and visa-versa? Seattle does not help pick our Fifth District Representative in Congress.

Just as in the Fifth District where agriculture, timber and mineral resources are important to constituents, people in Liberty Lake or Deer Park are likely not going to have the same considerations when it comes to making candidate selections as would those who live primarily on the West Plains.

The city of Spokane elects their members of the City Council by district and they seem to serve their entire city adequately.

The idea to expand the board of county commissioners from three to five was first floated back in the early 1990s by former Commissioner Steve Hasson. The measure failed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in November 1991.

That was at time when the Spokane Valley was experiencing rapid growth and felt they were not getting adequate representation from county government. Ultimately, after a series of setbacks at the polls, the Valley got the representation they wanted by forming their own city, incorporating in March 2003.

Since the inception of statehood in 1889 the Washington Constitution provided the rules to elect all county officials. The Legislature agreed then that three commissioners were adequate to oversee the business of all 39 counties in the state, be it King’s 2 million or the 2,000-plus in Garfield.

There’s nothing in the state Constitution, however, saying that three commissioners is a legal requirement, it’s purely an arbitrary number.

The Spokane Chronicle editorialized for expansion of the commission in 1989, hoping better representation would help stave off that eventual formation of the city of the Spokane Valley.

But then-governor Booth Gardner, despite supportive votes of 45-0 in the state Senate and 84-11 in the House, vetoed a home-rule charter bill that would have given local governments more say in matters like this.

As we move forward toward 2016 when voters will next decide on commissioners for District 1 in North Spokane and the south county’s District. 2, is it not time to get the wheels turning for reconfiguring the commissioner’s office?

Sure, there’s an added cost of the current $90,000 yearly salary and $10,000 in an automobile allowance, plus added administrative support — let’s round it out to $500,000.

But considering some recent boondoggles (and we’re not even talking racetracks) where county residents have lost significant money in transactions, spending an additional half a million a year for, perhaps, a different vote might even save taxpayers in the end.

An expansion measure could be initiated by the commissioners themselves. They did turn that down in 1996 and “tabled indefinitely,” the idea according to the Spokesman Review.

The other path is through an initiative that starts with securing valid signatures from 10 percent of the voters in the previous general election, with at least 20 percent coming from each of the three districts. That gets it on the ballot.

There are plenty of valid reasons for expansion of the commission, spreading the workload of endless meetings and presiding on various boards and commissions among them.

Currently, no two commissioners can meet, even for coffee or lunch or an off-the-clock party for fear of being in violation of public meetings laws.

While dead for a long time, commission expansion surfaced as recently as 2011. It gained support from the likes of Spokane County Auditor, Vicky Dalton, who speaks today of the long days and weighty workload. Current commissioner Todd Meilke said he supported the idea in a KREM-TV story.

Let’s get representation for the residents of Spokane County out of the 56KB dial-up mode on the Internet and up to today’s lightning-fast speed by expanding the office of the Board of County Commissioners.

 

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