A local Superior Court judge ruled against a lawsuit filed by the Spokane County Board of Commissioners and other counties seeking to overturn a new state law that would add commissioners to the board and force them to compete in district elections in both primary and general elections. But the plaintiffs are appealing the Aug. 16 ruling, which came from Judge Maryann Moreno.
The lawsuit argues that the bill, which was passed during the 2018 legislative session — Reps. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) and Mike Volz (R-Spokane) were its sponsors — is unconstitutional because the state constitution requires that lawmakers establish a uniform system of county government. The legislation would require that counties with populations of 400,000 or more residents make the changes; Spokane County has a population of roughly 500,000.
In response to the bill's passage, in late 2018, the three-member Spokane County Board of Commissioners voted to sue the state alongside the Washington State Association of Counties — with Spokane County Commissioner Al French specifically named as a plaintiff.
"The Legislature overstepped their authority when they passed this law, and we are disappointed in this ruling," Eric Johnson, executive director of the Association of Counties, says in a statement responding to the Aug. 16 ruling. "We stand firm in our belief that the Legislation is unconstitutional."
A motion to appeal the ruling has already been filed, Spokane County spokesman Jared Webley writes in an email to the Inlander.
The bill's proponents, meanwhile, argued that it would increase political representation and ideological diversity on the commission, as well as give commissioners more flexibility to meet in person without violating state law governing public meetings. Currently, any meeting between two commissioners on a three-member commission legally constitutes a public meeting.
"I’m pleased with Judge Moreno’s ruling upholding the Legislature's bipartisan work to bring representation closer to the people," Rep. Riccelli, the bill's sponsor, says in response to the ruling and the appeal. "I think it’s time for us to move on and focus on making government work for everybody in Spokane County.
"I’m concerned that this thing keeps dragging out, which means more legal bills," he adds.
Volz, meanwhile, says in a statement that he co-sponsored the bill to save the county "millions of dollars in hefty legal fees" if it were to face lawsuits over representation — akin to a similar case in Yakima where the ACLU sued the city in 2012, arguing that district-based elections were needed to increase Latino representation on the city council.
"It was our intent to prevent the court from determining district boundaries,” Volz says.
Critics have argued that the commissioners' opposition to the bill stems from cynical political self-preservation. Currently, the board consists entirely of Republicans. And while they are required to run in their individual districts in primary elections, the commissioners run county-wide in general elections — an electorate that skews conservative. Notably, in 2018, Commissioner French lost his district spanning Spokane and the West Plains by 10 points to a Democrat before going on to win the general election.
French has scoffed at the notion of the lawsuit being motivated by political self-preservation, pointing to a ballot measure that would've expanded the board of commissioners to five people that was shot down by the voters in 2015.
"This ruling clearly contradicts the language of the state constitution requiring uniformity in county governance. This interpretation opens the door for the Legislature to establish random metrics that ignore the will of the people and circumvent protections provided to voters in the state constitution," French says in a statement. "It is very unfortunate."
In his statement, French went on to say that the lawsuit filed in Superior Court was "always a necessary step" to get the issue before the Washington state Supreme Court. That court will "ultimately determine the legality of the Legislature's act," he says.
Riccelli notes that the bill would establish a five-person bipartisan commission made up of state lawmakers from Spokane County that would draw the new district lines for the county.
"I’m just wishing that folks could focus more on how we bring better representation to Spokane County, that we make sure that we have district elections so that people aren't disenfranchised," he says.