by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n the mid-1960s, King County's three county commissioners presided over a scandal-ridden government that had lost the people's trust. But they dug in their heels; even calls for reform from the League of Women Voters and the Municipal League were brushed off by the powerful triumvirate. Finally, however, the public outcry became so overwhelming that King County finally did what the Washington state constitution allows, and citizens there created a customized form of government.
King County's Home Rule Charter took effect in 1969, and we all know the rest of the story. Today, Seattle and King County are among the nation's top-rated places to live. The region also boasts one of the nation's most robust economies.
The notion that three men (or women) could run a county dates back to the late 19th century, when America was barely emerging from its agrarian era and local government was a sleepy, part-time job. Today, a three-commissioner system, as we have in Spokane County, is woefully inadequate. Not surprisingly, King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have all exercised their home rule options to create better governments. It's long past time we did the same here.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith only three commissioners, elected as members of political parties, it's easy to have the board swing one way or another. Lately, with three Republicans, many citizens have come to view their behavior as endorsing growth at any cost. If we had three Democrats, likely we would instead be bemoaning too many restrictions on growth. The point is, with only three leaders, it's easy to create a monolithic system in which half the county population may feel left out at any given time. (By comparison, King County has nine county commissioners who must hammer out policy together, while Pierce County has seven and Snohomish, closest to Spokane in size with about 640,000 in population, has five.)
At least when John Roskelley, Kate McCaslin and Phil Harris ran the county, there was the feeling that all points of view were represented somewhere among that group. But even then, it was a bit of a mirage, as any two could overrule the other one. Giving two people the power to make policy over so large an entity as Spokane County is a recipe for unrest. And the outcry over the firing of Dr. Kim Thorburn and the turning-out of Commissioner Harris prove there's plenty of unrest about the way the county is managed.
But the Thorburn controversy also proves another problem that having only three commissioners creates: They are overworked. By all accounts, the firing was two, maybe three years in the making. So what took them so long? In private moments, past and present commissioners admit they have way too much to do. And Harris, Mark Richard and Bonnie Mager are all on the record for supporting more commissioners. (All have mentioned the number five as being appropriate.)
Commissioners don't want to live in a constant firestorm of public outcry, and it's no good for the citizens, either. Even though some of it is of their own making, much of it can be traced to an inadequate system. The public will feel like government is working if there is open debate among mainstream views, but with three Republicans, or three Democrats, there is no debate, and the result is that trust in government erodes.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o where do we start? Spokane has actually been down the home rule road before, back in the early 1990s. The way it works is that the commissioners allow for an election of Freeholders -- a group of citizens who will hammer out a new charter and present it for a vote. That's what happened in 1995, when the Freeholders' plan for a combined Spokane city-county government was rejected (although city of Spokane residents supported it).
Our Freeholders chose a grandiose, silver-bullet-to-fix-everything plan, and they overshot the public's appetite. But there are thousands of combinations of proposals that Freeholders could offer. For instance, why do we elect the county auditor? Or the assessor? We don't need to; those positions could be appointed by the county council -- as could the sheriff. (The prosecutor, by state law, must be elected, however.) And in what's thought to be the only such instance in the nation, Washington's Clallam County (home to Port Angeles) elects its planning director, putting all those land-use decisions right in the public's lap.
But the basic decisions are how many commissioners to have, whether they should be affiliated with political parties and whether the county executive (sort of the county's mayor) should be elected or appointed.
The results here, I think, could be dramatic. Not only would we be exchanging our horse-and-buggy government for something shiny and new, but we would reconnect citizens with their government and hopefully inspire a new group of people to become active. And the incoming board of commissioners could at least find one thing to agree on, which could be a symbolically important step.
The other difference is that a home rule charter is a living, breathing document. By state law, it must be revisited at least every decade, but many counties are tweaking theirs more frequently. By contrast, we've run Spokane County with the same instruction manual since the days before the automobile.
The commissioners can start the process on their own, but that may not play well; people tend not to trust politicians who say they will reform themselves. To create a truly disinterested process, it would be better to have a civic group petition the commissioners to enable a new Freeholder process, as the League of Women Voters and the Municipal League did in King County all those years ago.
So what are we waiting for?