Power is Shifting Among the County Commissioners
And Al French Doesn’t Like It
Spokane County Commissioner Al French fought tooth and nail against the 2018 state law (SUBSTITUTE HOUSE BILL 2887) requiring that Washington State non-charter counties with a population over 400,000 shift from a three member to a five member Board of County Commissioners. Mr. French took his challenge to the law all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court, which declared, in a 9-0 decision, that the law is, in fact, constitutional.
Mr. French has been the most powerful (and one of the best paid at 120K/yr) elected official with legislative duties in Spokane County for more than a decade. (Unlike City of Spokane elected officials with legislative duties, County Commissioners are not term limited.) When Mr. French previously served on the City of Spokane City Council he was just one of six City Council Members. In contrast, for the last twelve years as County Commissioner he was one of three County Commissioners. For those twelve years all he needed was to convince one other like mind on the Board to pass his ideas for county legislation. Considering that Washington State’s open meeting law prevents two commissioners of a three member commission (two is quorum) from discussing county business outside of meetings, it seemed remarkable how often Josh Kerns, in particular, found himself in agreement with Mr. French, often making the preferences of the third commissioner, Mary Kuney, irrelevant.
Now Mr. French is one voice on the new five member Spokane County Board of County Commissioners that includes his frequent Republican ally, Josh Kerns; fellow Republican Mary Kuney; and newly elected Commissioners Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan, both Democrats.
The power shift on the Board was on display in the first half hour of the first full Regular Session Meeting of the new Board on January 10 (confusingly labelled “Consent Agenda”).
I encourage you to watch that first half hour on YouTube. (The drama of the election of the chair begins at about 5:40.) Seeing the Commissioners interact in person within the constrained framework of Roberts Rules of Order as they nominate and elect their chairperson for 2023 is an education in parliamentary procedure—and offers a personal perspective that a print medium cannot.
Here’s the Detail Revealed in the Video:
Commissioner Kuney was the chairperson of the three member Board of County Commissioners during 2022, a position that, we must assume, demonstrates her qualifications for the job. She presides over this first meeting of the new five member Board. Ms. Kuney presides by remote link. As soon as the floor is open Amber Waldref leads off with a motion nominating Ms. Kuney to serve as 2023 chair of the new Board. Even before there is a second to Ms. Waldref’s motion (which Chris Jordan was willing to offer) Mr. French leaps in to offer an amendment to Ms. Waldref’s motion . Mr. French’s would change Ms. Waldref’s nomination motion to nominate Mr. Kerns instead. Mr. Kerns seconds French’s offered amendment. Mr. Kerns then offers an amendment to the amendment, an amendment that would make the nominee Mr. French—and French seconds the amendment to the amendment. Confused yet? The procedure sets up three successive votes for chairperson in this order: French, Kerns, then Kuney.
In defense of his being voted chair Mr. French states that the position “really has no authority over the Board”. (Speaking as a former chairman, that is not accurate. The chairperson sets the agenda, a critical function.) The vote is taken. The motion to amend the amendment and elect French chairman fails with French and Kerns voting Yay and Waldref, Jordan, and Kuney voting Nay. Next up is the amendment to change the original nomination motion so as to nominate Kerns to serve as chair instead of Kuney. French speaks at length in favor of Kerns while suggesting that Kuney would be ineffective because of absences due to her duties with the Washington State Association of Counties (verbally abbreviated “Wa SAC”). This is bizarre, since Ms. Kuney is, right at that moment, doing a perfectly good job while chairing the meeting remotely. Ms. Kuney takes some umbrage at French’s characterization. The amended nomination that would have made Kerns chairman fails on the same votes as the amendment to the amendment. Predictably, the original motion, the one to make Ms. Kuney chairperson, passes on the same voting pattern. The tension is palpable.
For years Commissioner French has been quietly and effectively running the Board of County Commissioners of Spokane County as his personal fiefdom. With only two other commissioners, both Republicans, he hasn’t had to listen to, much less make accommodations for, the full range of opinion on major issues.
Colin Tiernan’s Spokesman article, “Republican Mary Kuney is the new chair of the Spokane County Commission … and other Republicans aren’t happy about it”, quotes Mr. French expressing his umbrage that he might actually have to listen to voices on the Board that represent roughly forty-five percent of those voting in Spokane County:
“She sided with the Democrats[!],” Republican Spokane County Commissioner Al French said of new Spokane County Commission Chair Mary Kuney, another Republican.
Sided with Democrats!! It’s as if, for Al French, considering the opinions of the new members of the board were like drinking bleach.
In a news release, the two commissioners [French and Kerns] said that, by voting for herself as chair, Kuney is “effectively ushering in a Democrat majority.”
French and Kerns are clearly math challenged. Having a Republican chair of the Board who might at least consider the opinions expressed by 2/5 of the Board is “ushering in a Democrat majority”? French and Kerns, it would seem, are not interested in entertaining the perspective of very nearly half of county voters.
On top of denouncing her attendance, French and Kerns said they don’t think Kuney is a true conservative.
“On the tough votes, she basically hasn’t been there,” French said in an interview.
The evidence they offer? Ms. Kuney wasn’t present to offer her third vote in support of a piece of legislation passed four years ago (legislation that was struck down in a unanimous ruling by the State Supreme Court just last month). They failed to draw attention to a 2-0 vote Kerns and French held last month to put a referendum on the ballot next November for a sales tax to build a new jail.
It is worth your time to click and read Mr. Tiernan’s Spokesman piece in full.
Mr. French is revealing himself as a divisive Republican extremist in the same mold as Republicans in our adjacent Kootenai County, Idaho, Republicans who denigrate as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) any Republican who “reaches across the aisle” to consider input from other voices in the small-d democratic process on which this country was founded. Mr. French, feeling his stranglehold on power slipping slightly, sounds desperate to declare a Republican slightly less extreme than himself as an apostate to modern-day Republican orthodoxy.
Keep to the high ground,
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