Indivisible-County Redistricting Impasse-W
County Power Politics
An historic change in the governance of Spokane County is about to occur. In 2022 Spokane County will elect five county commissioners each from five new commissioner districts to the County Commission. Importantly, the new commissioner elections must use district nominations AND district elections. This is in contrast to the current process where the three member County Commission is elected on a county-wide basis in the general election after surviving an in-district top-two primary. Having five commissioners directly representing five districts should offer markedly better representation than the current system.
Predictably, the three Republican Spokane County Commissioners, especially Al French, have fought tooth and nail against this new system put in place by state law. County Republicans, happy in their ascendant power, see the expansion as “a solution to a non-existent problem.”
Usually 40-45% of the votes cast in Spokane County go to Democrats. It seems reasonable to expect, absent partisan gerrymandering, that two of the five commissioners might be Democrats, people who would offer a different perspective than the current three-person, all-Republican County Commission.
The voters will elect five district-based Spokane County Commissioners in 2022, but, first, the new district lines must be drawn by the all new Spokane County Redistricting Commission (CRC). That process deserves our close attention. County Republicans hold a lot of the cards. They will do everything they can to control the process. At the very least they need to know the voters are watching.
The structure and function of the CRC is specified by state law passed in 2018, and codified in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). (See RCW 36.32.053 and RCW 36.32.054.) The CRC is closely modeled on the Washington State Redistricting Commission. The principle of both the state and county redistricting commissions is that redistricting is a balanced partisan process, a process in which the two major parties of the time are charged with reaching 3-1 or 4-0 agreement on the new political district boundaries based on the decennial nationwide census. (This is in contrast to the majority party of a state legislature shutting out the minority party, still the process in many states.)
By law, the four voting members of the five member Spokane County Redistricting Commission (CRC) are appointed by specified Democrats and Republicans currently serving in the Washington State Senate and House.
On March 1 the appointments of Natasha Hill and Brian McClatchey were announced by the Democratic legislators. The appointments of Robin Ball and James McDevitt by Republican legislators was announced a little after the March 1 deadline.
So far, so good. The next step was for these four appointed members to appoint a fifth member to the CRC by April 15. Although this fifth member is non-voting, they hold considerable power. They serve as the chairperson of the commission, setting the agenda and running the meetings. In an ideal world this person would be relatively non-partisan—but this isn’t ideal, this is local politics. After three meetings in which the four CRC members suggested nominated, interviewed, and winnowed candidates they met on the April 15 deadline for final votes on a fifth member to serve as chairperson.1 (See the footnote for notes on all four meetings.)
Jim Camden (who was not physically present) detailed the candidates and the commission members’ objections during the final meeting of the CRC in an article in the Spokesman entitled “‘Only going to get tougher from here’: Spokane County redistricting committee deadlocks on picking leader.” Four candidates were interviewed during the prior day’s meeting (see footnote below). Only two of those were put to a vote on the 15th.. Both of these votes ended in a 2-2 deadlock. A third vote, on a nominee who was not interviewed at the meeting, ended the same way, deadlocked at 2-2. (James McDevitt had said earlier that he would have “trouble working with her based on past experiences with the city.”)
Robin Ball and James McDevitt, the Republican appointees to the CRC hold the cards—and they know it. They read the law (RCW 36.32.053). All they had to do is vote “no” on any nominee put forward by the Democrats in order to throw the selection to current Spokane County Commissioners, Al French, Mary Kuney, and Josh Kerns, all of whom are staunch Republicans who take a dim view of this whole process.
The prime (and only) candidate McDevitt and Ball finally nominated, Bill Hyslop, has a long record of donating to Republican candidates, including current Spokane County Commissioner Al French. French is a staunch opponent of the whole idea of redistricting. Mr. French sued (and lost) to block implementation of the state law that mandated it. Considering that fewer than 10% of Americans ever contribute to a candidate’s campaign, it seems fair to view Mr. Hyslop as a certified Republican partisan with a high probability of being antagonistic to the whole process.
The objections raised at the meeting by Jim McDevitt and Robin Ball to Gary Stokes, general manager of KSPS and a journalist with a long history of covering politics, were weak by comparison. Robin Ball objected that Gary Stokes lacked “mediation training”, while Jim McDevitt pointed out that Mr. Stokes voted on the Democratic ticket in the last two Presidential Primaries. Wow. Really? There are two major parties in this country. Deciding to help choose a presidential candidate of one of those parties makes you a staunch partisan? Hardly. No one asked about Bill Hyslop’s presidential primary voting record. The answer would have been obvious. The third vote, on Gloria Ochoa’s nomination (also mentioned above), was doomed from the start by McDevitt’s unspecified aversion.
You can bet Al French already knows who the fifth member, the non-voting chairperson, of the CRC will be, just like he presented Dr. Lutz’ replacement to the Spokane Regional Board of Health moments after Dr. Lutz was fired. Al French holds more power in Spokane County than any other elected official—and he’s not about to let any of that power go without twisting every political and legal knob at his disposal. All he needs to assure the appointment of his preferred candidate is the agreement of one other county commissioner, either Mary Kuney or Josh Kerns. Not a difficult task.
The deadline for Spokane County Commissioners to announce the fifth member and chairperson of the County Redistricting Commission is April 30, just eight days away. Here’s what you can do to let the County Commissioners know that you’re paying attention:
1) Contact the County Commissioners. Visit https://www.spokanecounty.org/1123/County-Commissioners , click on each name and email them. Ask to be updated on the redistricting process. Suggest that it is inappropriate to name a fifth member to the CRC who has contributed to the current commissioners’ campaigns. Ask if the public can attend the County Commissioners’ deliberations on the appointment. (There is a “Public Hearing” on Tuesday, April 27. Is that where the decision will be made?) Make the point. Ask a question. Keep it short.
2) Visit https://www.spokanecounty.org/ . Go to the far bottom right corner of the page under Site Links and click “Notify Me.” Follow the directions to receive notifications of the County Commissioners “Special Meetings” and “Weekly Meetings”. If they receive a bunch of signups it might give them notice that people are taking an interest and their choices could have consequences.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. It gets worse. According to RCW 36.32.053, “The legislative body of the county will provide adequate funding and resources to support the duties of the redistricting committee.” In other words, the current three County Commissioners control the purse strings of CRC. Moreover, it looks like the staff that will provide technical assistance to the CRC are all county staff employed by, and directly accountable to, the current Commissioners. Brian McClatchey and Natasha Hill will need technical assistance of their own.
If the CRC deadlocks on the final district proposal the decision goes to the Washington State Redistricting Commission. (If the WSRC deadlocks it goes to the WA State Supreme Court.)
Bill Siems, a member of Spokane Indivisible, listened in or physically attended all four meetings of the CRC. Below is his detailed summary of the proceedings.
The Redistricting Commissioners met 4 times: April 7, April 13, April 14, April 15.
On April 7 McDevitt nominated Bill Hyslop, Ball nominated David De Wolf (attorney and emeritus Gonzaga law professor, never mentioned again) and Catherine Brazil (UW’s Director of Government and Community Relations for Spokane and Eastern Washington, board member Hutton Settlement, STCU, has worked for Slade Gorton and Cowles Corp), McClatchey nominated Judge Jim Murphy, and Hill nominated Gloria Ochoa- Bruck. The Commissioners were to consider these nominations and meet again for discussion on April 13.
On April 13 McDevitt refused to consider either Ochoa-Bruck (she had butted heads with McDevitt when he served as interim Spokane police chief) or Murphy (“too liberal”), McClatchey and Hill objected that Hyslop is too partisan (McClatchey cited $ contributions to all 3 current Commissioners). McClatchey and Hill spoke strongly for a less partisan Non-voting Chair, both to keep the process peaceable and to present an appearance of impartiality to the public. They suggested Lars Gilbert (CEO of Spokane University District) and Gary Stokes (President of KPBS) as possibilities. Agreement to meet on April 14 to interview Lars Gilbert, Bill Hyslop, Gary Stokes, and Catherine Brazil, if they are available. Note the effect of the looming April 15 deadline on an orderly process. What are the chances that the slow-walking of the CRC meetings was not a deliberate choice emanating from the County Commission?
On April 14 Gilbert, Hyslop, Stokes and Brazil were interviewed, in that order, for about 15 minutes each. The interviews nominally had four points 1) introduce yourself and background, 2) why are you interested, 3) why are you ideal, 4) any questions for us. Hyslop was scheduled to interview first but arrived late. One effect of this was that Hyslop was present in the room for most of Gilbert’s interview! Another irregularity was that Brazil, whose interview was last, never got a chance to ask questions. The questions from Stokes elicited declarations from both McDevitt and Ball that the redistricting (which they took oaths to perform to the best of their ability) was a “solution” to a non-existent problem. Stokes also suggested that a good first act for the full CRC would be to provide a joint editorial about their work to the S-R and other media. Both McDevitt and Ball made joking references to the liberal bias of the S-R. The Commissioners agreed to meet the following day to offer resolutions.
On April 15 McDevitt and Ball said they would support only Hyslop. Their objections to Gilbert and Brazil were perfunctory, on the order of “fine people, but not qualified.” Stokes’ experience with resolving workplace disputes was deemed shallow compared to Hyslop’s professional mediation experience (McClatchey said “this is not a mediation.”). McDevitt had discovered that Stokes had voted in the Democratic primary in the past two Presidential elections. No one mentioned Hyslop’s voting in these elections. McClatchey said he found only Hyslop unacceptable, in part because during the interview Hyslop conducted himself as though he were “interviewing to become my boss,” and because he stared at McClatchey the entire time, never meeting the eyes of either Ball or Hill. When asked how he would counter a public perception of his partiality, Hyslop replied that the public should watch him and see for themselves. Hill and McClatchey spoke eloquently of the negative effects of selecting a chair as strongly partisan as Hyslop, both for the smooth progress of the work, and for public perception of partiality. Three nominations (Hyslop, Stokes, Ochoa-Bruck) all produced 2-2 votes.
County employees present ex officio at the four meetings were Gerry Gemmill (Chief Executive Officer, administered oaths of office, chaired first 3 meetings), John Dickson (Chief Operations Officer, chaired 4th meeting and described himself as a technical type), Ginna Vasquez (Clerk of the Board, secretary/recorder), and an attorney for the County whose name I did not catch supplied legal advice and properly worded texts for resolutions. For example, the Commissioners were inclined to discuss candidates in Executive Session (public not allowed), but were informed by the attorney this was not legal. Also present for all four meetings as a “member of the public” was Karen Corkins, Al French’s assistant. The only others present as “members of the public” at each meeting were one to three representatives of Spokane Indivisible.
Chief Operations Officer John Dickson said that all staffing and support for the CRC will come from the County. He mentioned as a possibility contracting with an outside firm to provide technical assistance to the CRC. This timeliness and sufficiency of the County support will bear close watching. This would be the next arena of foot dragging and slow walking.