Spokane County Commissioners
What they do--and the power they wield--is little understood. Big changes are in the works.
If salary reflects something of the power of the position consider the following annual salaries for selected Spokane County and City elected officials for 2022:
Spokane County Commissioner: $120,370
City of Spokane Councilperson: $47,624
City of Spokane Council President: $63,240
In spite of what those numbers suggest, last week at a non-political gathering of otherwise well-educated residents of Spokane County I asked ten people if they could tell me how many County Commissioners we have representing us in our County government. Not a single person offered the correct answer (three), all acknowledged that they were merely guessing, none could name a County Commissioner, and several asked, “What do County Commissioners do, anyway? Don’t they just represent the rural parts of the county [not long ago that’s what I, too, would have said]?”
It feels as though the current Spokane County Commissioners, Al French, Josh Kerns, and Mary Kuney, would be happy if their part in Spokane County governance were to remain obscure to most voters. I find it impossible to locate the minutes from the County Commissioner meetings at spokanecounty.org. I can be pointed to them, they’re there, but no one seems motivated to make the website self-explanatory. The Commissioners are only rarely quoted in local media. Coverage of the County Commissioner actions in the Spokesman Review is skimpy compared to the attention paid to City of Spokane’s Mayor Woodward and the six members of the City Council.
That’s the wrong focus. The three current Spokane County Commissioners (French, Kerns, and Kuney) represent a squeeze-point in local representation and governance while, on a per capita basis, they wield immense power and influence.
The Founders’ model of American governance laid out in the U.S. Constitution specifies three branches: executive [the President and executive departments and agencies], legislative [i.e. Congress, the House and Senate], and judicial [the federal court system]. In this federal government the legislative branch alone consists of 535 voting members, elected legislators each answerable (at least in theory) to their constituents. Most state government models are similar. Washington State has its Governor (the executive), Jay Inslee, and a bicameral legislature (State House and State Senate) composed of a total of 147 state-elected legislators. The local government of the City of Spokane also runs on that model, but on a smaller scale: a “strong” mayor, Mayor Woodwood, heads up the executive branch while the legislative branch is made up of six city counselors led by a City Council President (Breean Beggs). Note that for each level of government, for those of us living in the City of Spokane, the executive and legislative branches are separate and the least number of elected officials engaged in the legislative branch is seven (Spokane City Council), except:
Not so on county commissions. Currently, just three Spokane County Commissioners serve as both the executive and legislative branches of county governance. This is currently true in each non-charter (“commissioner form”) county—32 of the 39 counties in Washington State. The form that county government takes is specified by the Washington State Constitution (Article XI, Section 5) and by state law, the Revised Code of Washington. The powers of the County Commissioners, which are considerable [and little understood by most of us], are enumerated in RCW 36.32.120. Some hint of their reach can be seen in this “County Organizational Chart” from the Spokane County website:
The County Commissioners exercise legislative and executive power not only over this bureaucracy: their power and influence extends to membership on (and often chairmanship of) a multitude of local boards on which they sit with representatives of municipal governments and other stakeholders. Recently (and infamously) that includes the influence of Commissioner Al French on the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health. There he was instrumental in the firing of Dr. Bob Lutz as District Health Officer and hiring of French’s own hand-picked replacement.
A little less noted, but just as brash, on June 29, 2021, the Spokane County Board of Commissioners, presumably powered by Commissioner French with the aid and influence of County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, restructured the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council (SRLJC), removing community representatives and several elected officials. The move produced a well-deserved uproar among other local leaders. Little noted was that Commissioner French had been chairman of the SRLJC and set its agenda, bending the Council to his will, prior to the re-structuring. In the lead up to the County Commissioners’ restructuring of the SRLJC, the SRLJC’s Strategic Planning Committee asked that the community members forced out to an outlying position in the restructuring be granted “at least some authority to make the council more than just a recommending body”.
“That’s not going to happen,” French said. “I’m not going to relegate that authority or responsibility to another group that is going to manage county funds.”
For Mr. French, apparently, it’s all about money and power, not community input. Father French knows best…
County Commissioners are not term limited. Al French was first elected County Commissioner in 2008. He is now ending his third four year term in office. (See details in P.S.) Prior to that he was on the City of Spokane City Council for eight years (two terms). His longevity gives him an advantage over, for example, City of Spokane City Councilors, who are limited to two four year terms. By this time Mr. French must know who has strings to pull and where all the bodies are buried. His bio in the Spokesman claims that he “currently sits on 40 boards, commissions, councils from the local to regional and state levels”. His sporadic attendance at the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health, appearing only to help fire Dr. Lutz and immediately put forward for board approval French’s hand-picked new replacement, suggests that he is acutely aware of his power—and how to wield it with the least amount of exposure and investment of time.
This year there is a chance to significantly improve constituent representation with the simultaneous election of a five (not three) member Board of Spokane County Commissioners from five newly drawn districts. Up until now all a commissioner candidate had to do was win a top two primary election in their district before going on to a county-wide election in the November general election. That consistently yielded three Republican Commissioners. Big change: This fall each new Commissioner will be chosen only by the voters of their District of residence—both in the top two primary and in the general election. The new system is likely to yield at least two Democrats and three Republicans (based on past voting patterns), but Mr. French is running in District 5, a district that could swing. If he makes it through the top two primary (he has three challengers), he may face off in the general election against Maggie Yates, a young, extremely bright and skilled contender with several years experience in county government and with Mr. French. There are two other quality Democrats running in two other districts, Chris Jordan (District 1) and Amber Waldref (District 2)
With an improved understanding of how county government works, it is time to take some interest, study up, talk it up with your friends and neighbors and lend a hand to one of these candidates.
Uncertain about the new districts? If you are into maps and want to see how the districts are laid out I recommend the interactive map on Amber Waldref’s campaign website or the less interactive one on the county website. If you’re content to know who will be on your ballot, go to myvote.wa.gov, enter your information, and click on “Voters’ Guide” under Current Election. While you’re there check out the rest of the information available—including, under “Voting Registration”, that your residential and mailing address for your ballot are still current.
Ballots will be mailed July 13th. Sadly, many people I’ve talked aren’t even aware there is an election coming up. Talk it up. There’s a chance for meaningful change.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Unlike City Councilors, each of whom is limited to two four year terms, County Commissioners have no term limits. Spokane County Commissioner Al French, for example, is just now at the end of his third term in office, having been first elected in 2010 (and having just finished two four year terms—the limit—as a City of Spokane City Council member). Josh Kerns was first elected in 2016, and Mary Kuney in 2020. Kuney, another Republican intertwined with the building industry (French is a developer) appears to take her cues from Mr. French. Kerns’ background is as state legislative assistant to deeply conservative state representatives John Ahern and, later, Jeff Holy.
Under the Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 RCW, enacted in 1971) it is at least theoretically illegal for two county commissioners on a three person county commission to discuss business that will come before the county commission—unless that discussion is available to the public. The logic? Two of three county commissioners constitute a quorum for conducting county business, therefore such discussions must be public. Until now Commissioner French has only needed one compliant follower on the Board of County Commissioner in order to control the executive and legislative branches of county government all by himself. He is without a doubt the most powerful—and power-conscious—elected official in all of Spokane County.
Loss of power and control must have been on Commissioner French’s mind when he spent time on a lawsuit against the new 5 commissioner system that will go into effect this fall. In August of 2020 in a unanimous decision the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against French and company and in favor of the constitutionality of the new system. Apparently, Mr. French’s power has limits.