WA Supreme Court Affirms New Five Commissioner Law For Spokane County

Aug 20, 2020

Beginning in late 2022, Spokane County government will be overseen by five elected commissioners, rather than the current three.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

UPDATED 2:55 pm with new comments from Commissioner Al French and the Washington State Association of Counties.

The Washington Supreme Court has upheld a law that mandates Spokane County move from three county commissioners to five. The nine-zero ruling puts in motion a change in representation for county residents by 2022.

Most rural counties in Washington have governments run by three elected commissioners who oversee day-to-day operations. Spokane is the most populous county without its own charter to use that form of government.

But Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) says it’s an outdated model. He says a county with more than a half million residents needs more representation. So, in 2018, he and four other Spokane legislators, including three Republicans, approved a bill that adds two commissioners to share the responsibilities and workload.

The Spokane County commissioners objected, arguing county voters said no in 2015 to expanding the commission. Commissioner Al French, former commissioner John Roskelley and the Washington State Association of Counties sued to stop the bill from becoming law. A Spokane County judge upheld the new law. The commissioners appealed to the Supreme Court, which now has had the final say.

“I think it’s a solid result to move our county forward and make sure we have better representation and that our population and our government match. It’s past due," Riccelli said.

Commissioner Al French says the decision not only nullifies the will of the people, it represents one level of government imposing itself on another.

“The county commissioners for 39 counties, every county in the state, agreed to come together to help pay for the cost of this litigation because they know if you can do it to one county and its citizens, you can do it to any county and all of our citizens," French said.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling overturns 105 years of the Court’s interpretation, and ours, regarding the uniform system of county government in the State of Washington. Counties across the state may need to start looking toward establishing local county charters to guard against the legislature arbitrarily deciding the system of county government on a county by county basis,” said Eric Johnson, Executive Director of the Washington State Association of Counties.

The law calls for a bipartisan commission to determine boundary lines for the five commission districts next year. The first positions will then go on the ballot in 2022. The new law mandates that voters in each district will choose their commissioner in the general election, rather than by countywide vote.

French says there’s another alternative: the county can begin a process to bypass the new law and create a county charter. In that case the county could create a citizen board that would decide on a form of government and then put that to a vote of the people.