Memo to Marshall Farnell: Your plans for retirement have been postponed — indefinitely. Spokane County's CEO, now in his mid-70s, can't quit because the commissioners can't agree on his replacement.
Everyone remembers when Commissioner Todd Mielke's dreams of replacing Farnell were kiboshed by Commissioner Al French. But fewer realize this: In Washington's three most populous counties — King, Pierce and Snohomish — they simply elect their chief executive. With his background on the issues and previous success with voters, Mielke would be elected easily.
But of course we don't do it that way; we still rely on the 19th century model of county government. Of the top five counties by population, only Spokane persists with this "ye olde" system. If Spokane County was a car, it would be a horse and buggy; if it was a plane, it would be a hot air balloon.
Frustrated by the dawning realization that one commissioner can grind the whole thing to a halt, Mielke and Commissioner Shelly O'Quinn are asking voters if they'd like to expand the board of commissioners to five. But without any real advocacy, and no recent screw-up to fan the flames, it's not going anywhere. But remember, not all good things pass quickly here — it took five votes to secure the Spokane Arena. Voters should stay tuned.
Ever since 1948, our legislature has granted counties the power to replace the old system with a home rule charter. The process is simple. A board of "freeholders" is established, either by petition or vote of the commissioners. That group holds a public process and crafts a new charter for a countywide vote. As former Commissioner John Roskelley opined in the Spokesman-Review, this is the proper way to reform county government.
And it needs reforming. Here we are, trying to run a dynamic, up-and-coming community, yet we can't even hire a new CEO. And don't buy that it's just bigger government. No, it's an investment in better decision-making — a shot at better, more representative government. Think about it: Under our antiquated system, the commissioners enact legislation, they write the budgets and they share in the management and administration duties. They are judge, jury and executioner.
There are plenty of rocks to turn over to find reform opportunities. Consolidating city and county police forces and land use planning are changes that many urban areas have adopted. Freeholders could put a range of possibilities up for discussion.
I'm voting yes, not because I think it will pass, but because I want to encourage a home rule process to spring up sometime soon. ♦