Where Local Power Lies
Observations of a Citizen on Spokane's City and County Governments
First up for most of us when we try to put a face on government in Spokane is Mayor Nadine Woodward.1 Her twenty-eight year career with regional TV stations makes her visage easily recognizable in eastern Washington. She is quoted and appears regularly in local media. In the City of Spokane’s “strong mayor” form of government Woodward is the head of the city’s executive branch. Her annual salary of $171,360 is among the highest salaries of elected officials in the region, exceeding the salary of all but County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich ($179,707.50), County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell ($199,675.00) and county level judges. For reference, Spokane County Commissioners’ salaries are less at $117,434.22.2
What is the importance of the Spokane County Commissioners (or Washington State county commissioners in general) in the structure of local governance? It is easy to imagine (as I did until the last few years) that county commissioners only govern the parts of the county that are not incorporated as municipalities (like the City of Spokane and the City of Spokane Valley). That is a gross misconception of how it works.
The Spokane County Board of Commissioners (SCBoC) are intertwined and often overarch their municipal counterparts. There are twenty-nine governmental Boards and Commissions within Spokane County. Take the Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health (SRHDBoH) during its recent turmoil around the firing of Health Officer Bob Lutz. That Board, which, in my naïveté, I had imagined was composed of medical professionals, was no such thing. The three Spokane County commissioners and their three appointees make up half of the twelve member SRHDBoH. City of Spokane officials occupy three seats, City of Spokane Valley two, and the Mayor of Millwood (representing smaller municipalities) one. After chronic non-attendance at previous BoH meetings, Commissioner French appeared at the BoH meeting at which Dr. Lutz’ firing was belatedly approved. At that meeting French disappeared for long periods from his Zoom window, was ready with several key motions, and instantly offered up Dr. Velazquez to replace Dr. Lutz once the firing vote was taken, leaving the impression of behind-the-scenes manipulation.
Consider that the three member Spokane County Board of Commissioners functions as the combined executive and legislative body of County government, while in the City of Spokane (roughly half the population of the County) that power is split between the Mayor and the City Council. The City Council, the legislative power, consists of a Council President (Breean Beggs) and six City Council Members elected from three districts. That’s eight elected officials representing half the county population compared to three Commissioners running the whole of county government. One could argue that makes county government more nimble, but there is no denying the concentration of power.
There are generally unrecognized power imbalances between local county and municipal governments. For example, City of Spokane officials are limited to two terms in a given elected office whereas County officials are not term-limited. Mayor Woodward did not come to her position as mayor with a background in executive management. She came from a background in broadcast television and Republican politics. She gets to use her on-the-job training for a maximum of two terms (totaling eight years). In contrast, Al French, a developer by trade with deep ties in government and the business community, has been in office as the senior County Commissioner since 2010. In his position as one third of County Government for the last ten and a half years Al French understands and controls the levers of governance to a degree that most officials limited to two four year terms and functioning at the city level will struggle to achieve.3
County Commissioners are identified on the ballot by the shorthand of partisan affiliation, whereas city officials are nominally non-partisan. One needs to pay attention to the individual candidate in city elections rather than make assumptions (possibly unwarranted) based on party.
When you think of governmental power in the Spokane local region pay at least as much attention to your vote for your Spokane County Commissioner and to the actions of these officials as you do to faces you more commonly see in the news. County government is powerful—and widely underestimated and misunderstood.
Big changes are coming. The Spokane County Re-districting Commission is currently working to divide the county into five districts from the current three. Instead of county-wide general election of Spokane County Commissioners, starting in 2022 a single Commissioner will be elected from each of the five new districts solely by the voters in that district (as mandated by state law and defended in the courts). There is a potential shift in power. We need to pay attention.
Keep to the high ground,
That is likely also true for many who live outside the city limits of the City of Spokane. Areas contiguous with and superficially indistinguishable from the City of Spokane that are not jurisdictionally part of the City include the rough rectangle of homes south of 53rd Street and east of Hatch Road, as well as a peninsula of dense housing around N. Country Homes Blvd up north. Have a look on this map.
Limiting terms in office is always tempting when looking at an entrenched politician, but term limits for one office risk weakening that office in relation to other elected offices (or even in relation to the career bureaucrats that surround these officials).