The Al French Way
One More Power Play Before the County Commission Gets More Complicated
First a plug for RANGE Media. RANGE is a new (started April 2020), local, digital news outlet with (currently) three young writers, Luke Baumgarten, Valerie Osier, and Carl Segerstrom, who publish two or three times each week. The articles include an end of week concise guide to local government meetings with links to agendas and more. Here’s an example from Sunday, December 18, that I found very useful in constructing this post: New year, new jail? by Valerie Osier. The RANGE articles provide a richness and clarity on local issues and local government actions that one finds only sporadically in local print and television outlets. I urge you to sign up for the RANGE emails. There is a free option. I finally signed up for a paid subscription. I urge you to join me in supporting their work.
The Al French way on the Spokane County Commission
This month—finally—the Spokane County Commission, the legislative and executive power of the county, seats five commissioners instead of three. Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan, elected last November, were sworn in to two new seats on the commission in a well-attended ceremony held on the coldest day of 2022, December 22. (YouTube video here. See P.P.S.) The prior three member commission, the standard in Washington State for small counties, consisted of Al French, Josh Kerns, and Mary Kuney. All three were re-elected to the commission under the new by-district election format that (by state law) replaced the older election scheme. (In the old system commissioners first had to survive an in-district top two primary, but then were elected in a county-wide contest.) Mr. French narrowly retained his seat in the new in-district election format, garnering 23,786 votes (51.6%) over Democrat Maggie Yates’ 22,279.
It is no secret that Mr. French in particular did not take conversion to the new structure of county government lightly: he mounted a legal challenge to the new state law that mandated the new structure, a challenge that went all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court. He and his fellow plaintiffs lost. Most county voters probably didn’t notice.
With the composition of the Spokane County Commission changing at the first scheduled “BoCC Regular Session Meeting” this month one might have naively thought that significant not-time-critical decisions could wait until the new commissioners were seated in January. At least one might have hoped that a prospective vote on such a decision might be announced ahead of time so the public would have a chance to weigh in—but that’s not the Al French way. (See P.S.)
In the way of Al French, the published agenda for the December 13th meeting of the Commission, the last “Regular Session Meeting” of the year (if you could even find it on the county website), buried the matter of putting up a referendum for next November in the “Consent Agenda”—a part of the meeting meant for routine items. Here’s the entry under “d” of the Consent Agenda Items:
In the matter of calling an Election within Spokane County to be held on Tuesday, November 7, 2023, and submitting to Electors a Proposition to impose a Two-Tenths of One Percent (0.2%) Sales and Use Tax equal throughout Spokane County, as authorized by RCW 82.14.450, the proceeds to be used by the County, Cities and Towns within Spokane County for Criminal Justice,Public Safety, and Behavioral Health purposes.
Since the Consent Agenda items are supposed to be routine, there is no public comment. Mary Kuney was out of town on county business, so the meeting—and the voting—was all up to Al French and Josh Kerns.
You would be pardoned if, after reading this Consent Agenda item in full, you still weren’t sure of the intended use for the new revenue. Commissioner Kerns provided a hint.
“We have kicked this political football around for over a decade,” Kerns said. “It’s time for the voters’ voices to be heard.”
The “political football” is, of course, a new jail. Remarkable. If “We have kicked it…around for over a decade”, what is the emergency that requires that two good ‘ole boys, in the last meeting before a major change in county governance, to vote in a tax referendum that won’t be on the ballot for eleven months? I guess it’s just the Al French way.
Whether or not we should support a 0.2% increase in the sales tax levied in Spokane County, one purpose of which is to build a new jail, depends greatly on the specifics. French and Kerns (grandly identified as “the Spokane County Commissioners”) provide a “news flash” with few details but a lot of glossy language about “Criminal Justice Improvements”. One expects that the 2023 municipal elections will be all about “law and order.”
Choosing a rise in sales tax as the method of funding a new jail by declaring this referendum in the last days of the old commissioner regime is strategically preemptive. Why choose an increased sales tax, absolutely the most regressive tax option, the option that falls most heavily on those who can least afford the extra burden?
One hopes that the Al French way will play less well with the new five member commission. Mr. French, the most powerful elected law-making official in Spokane County, has cast his shadow over the operations of county government for far too long. Perhaps his need to usher in this jail funding referendum in such a rush is a sign that Mr. French fears that his grip on the levers of local power are about to loosen.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. We saw another example of the Al French way of power in the Zoom meeting in which [we have to suspect] he engineered the firing of the Spokane County Health Officer, Bob Lutz, in the middle of the Covid pandemic—a firing for which Amelia Clark, his inept administrative ally in the Spokane Regional Health District, ultimately resigned.
P.P.S. Attendees at the swearing in ceremony for Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan on December 22 noted that current Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney also attended the ceremony, but Al French was conspicuously absent. Perhaps he was out of town for the holidays—or perhaps this was just another example of the Al French Way—staying out of the limelight while pulling the levers.