What we call county government was first established to preside over rural areas. In New England, county government has never amounted to much more than a record-keeping operation. In the South and West, where rural areas were always much larger, county governments have, over the years, morphed into quasi-urban operations through the phenomenon we call "land development."
So county seats started as the places where the business of farming, land exchange and rural law enforcement took place. But with the coming of the massive post-World War II home building spree, they turned into something else. With relative political ease, county governments, in all areas of the country except for New England, began changing the landscape -- but only with reference to simplistic existing land-use laws that reduced the decision-making process to a range of factors that defied anything approximating planning. Instead, these laws and the decision-making-processes that administered them brought us the post-war suburbs -- vast tracts of formerly agricultural land turned into row upon row of split level "spec" houses, cul-de-sac upon cul-de-sac of cheapened versions of Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie house. Urban design was impossible even to contemplate, let alone plan for.
What made all of this possible, of course, was the car. And what made the car possible were highways and roads. And what made both possible were political decisions that efficiently moved tax dollars into the coffers of the automobile industry by pouring all that pavement.
However one might view the past six decades of "urban sprawl," it must be clear that most counties, including Spokane County, are no longer rural. But the governmental form that we rely upon to manage the public's business in these counties is the same form that we created two centuries ago to do nothing more than keep a record of deeds and hang a horse thief or two.
Our three-member board of county commissioners is typical of this older form. From time to time, the public has been asked to consider redesigning county government so that it can at the very least be better able to handle the range of urban problems that all that suburban growth has spawned. And as suburban problems increasingly take on the identical form of the older urban problems, troubles mount. Has county government as we know it outlived its usefulness?
I think the answer is yes. But it's been easy to put off this assessment, because, from time to time, exceptional public servants are elected to office. Regardless of one's political persuasion, regardless of whether you agreed with them or not, our two recently retired commissioners, Kate McCaslin and John Roskelley, were exceptional. McCaslin combined a flinty (some would say abrasive) style with a keen mind, an eye to the critical details and a political sense that made her arguably the most formidable elected public servant this area has seen in the past several decades. And Roskelley provided an articulate voice in support of a range of concerns, mostly environmental, that counties have historically ignored. But now McCaslin and Roskelley are gone, and our county government has quickly moved to its default position. Ta da -- drum roll, please -- straight from Central Casting, I give you ...
First, our obligatory "good ol' boy commissioner," Phil Harris, who has finally attracted the public's attention with the news that three of his sons work for the county. You have to wonder, does he even know the meaning of the word nepotism?
Then we have Todd Mielke, our "stealth commissioner" who all too quietly promises to undue all the "damage" that Roskelley did, i.e., stand in the way of unbridled land development. Still, he's the best of the three, having shown that he's at least capable of keeping his knee from jerking before his mind gets a chance to think.
And finally, every old-fashioned board of commissioners needs its own walking conflict of interest. I refer to Mark Richard, the best commissioner that the homebuilders' money could buy. When that lobbying group got sick of not always getting its way, it ran its own candidate -- and voters overlooked the potential conflict in electing him.
All that this bunch lacks is a moral center to guide public policy independent of special interests. McCaslin and Roskelley, by contrast, brought an intellectual acuity and sense of loyalty to average citizens that paid off in good decisions -- even if they were not always popular with special interest groups. And, frankly, I believe that the only reason that Harris has eluded public scrutiny for all these years has been because McCaslin and Roskelley provided him cover.
So it is time, once again time, to reconsider the relationship between county government's form and function. If my argument is right -- that McCaslin and Roskelley were exceptions to what we should expect, and that urban problems demand so much more attention -- we need to consider a government more suited to an urban environment.
A seven-member commission with an appointed or elected county executive is the obvious model -- and which is already in use by counties like King (with 13 council members), Snohomish (with five) and Pierce (with seven). It's also more like the strong-mayor system that has been adopted by the city of Spokane. This county reform would be easier to achieve than would be city-county unification and would likely prove more effective than consolidation (a reform that so often confuses bureaucratic efficiencies with political effectiveness). Seven members would at least offer a chance for all points of view in the county to be represented. And we would end the odd situation that arises when a public meeting is triggered any time two of three commissioners meet in the hall. (Two of them together makes a quorum, putting a meeting into effect, with all the state laws that go along with that.)
However one comes down on the specifics of reform, it is an issue that begs to go back on the table.