The idea of expanding the county board of commissioners to five members is a good one, but the bill sent by the Legislature to the governor's desk isn't the solution.
We hope the fact that Gov. Jay Inslee didn't sign the bill immediately means he's weighing carefully whether it meets the spirit, if not the letter, of the state constitution.
In brief, the bill establishes a process to divide Spokane County into five districts, each of which will elect a commissioner starting in 2022.
The Journal of Business previously has supported expansion of the board of county commissioners to five members from the current board of three, in order to disperse the board's considerable authority and increase representation throughout the county's growing population. Earlier iterations of the expansion, however, didn't involve voting by district in a general election.
With the Spokane County Board of Commissioners and the Association of Washington Counties urging the governor to veto the new legislation, it's likely headed for a state constitutional showdown if it becomes law.
One potential violation of the state constitution is that, rather than being a uniform statewide law, the new legislation singles out Spokane County in that it's only aimed at counties with populations over 400,000 that have three-person boards. Other counties that meet that population threshold already have governing boards with at least five members.
Sens. Michael Baumgartner and Andy Billig, two sponsors of the legislation, have said that the bill is a strong example of bipartisan work that will give county residents within each of the five districts the ability to hold their elected representatives more directly responsible.
But the fact that no one on the board would be elected by the entire county is a flaw of the legislation. The state measure allows a three-member majority to make changes affecting land use and tax rates throughout the county, but unlike the makeup of the Spokane City Council, which can be vetoed by the mayor, no one would have veto power in the county. In that sense, commissioners only would be accountable to voters in their respective districts, and no one would be accountable to voters countywide.
The Journal supported putting a county measure to expand the board of commissioners on the ballot in 2015 and then urged voters to approve it. Voters, however, rejected the measure with a 54 percent majority "no" vote.
That vote, however, didn't discourage some lawmakers from attempting in each session since then to craft a state law to shape the board.
This time, with many of our local legislators sponsoring a pair of companion bills in the state House and Senate, the measure passed with a rare, bipartisan, majority strong enough to override a veto, should the governor reject the bill, and the Legislature revisit it next session.
Perhaps it will take the courts to determine authoritatively whether the legislation unconstitutionally makes structural changes to Spokane County's government.
If the state measure doesn’t prove up to constitutional muster, perhaps the makeup of the Spokane County Board of Commissioners should be revisited periodically on a countywide ballot for voters here to ensure local government continues to be shaped through local means.
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