Who Represents Me? The County Commissioners, That’s Who

The Spokesman-Review coverage about state Senate nominee Roy Murry and his arrest early Monday in Las Vegas suggests that the 4th Legislative District Republican precinct committee officers (PCOs) put at least one ringer on the list for appointment to the Senate seat vacated by retired Sen. Bob McCaslin.

McCaslin himself and others have said so publicly. Better-qualified candidates were passed over when the short list was developed. 

The implication—which I have heard from more than one source and which is spelled out in the Spokesman piece—is that the PCO thumbs were on the scale in an attempt to box in the county commissioners so they would “have” to appoint State Rep. Matt Shea.

Let me be clear—this piece isn’t about Rep. Shea’s qualifications for the Senate seat. This is about the process, the Constitution, and what voters deserve.

I don’t live in the 4th Legislative District, and for the record I’m not a Republican. So you might say that on two levels this really isn’t my issue. But it really is—and it’s yours, too, if you live in Spokane County or in the State of Washington.

I live in Spokane County, in the commissioner district represented by Mark Richard. When the Board of County Commissioners acts to appoint someone to an open legislative seat they represent every voter in the county, and ultimately in the state.

They do so in two ways. First, they are the elected officials charged under the state constitution with this responsibility. The County Commissioners—not the PCOs.

Had the Populist-oriented framers of the Washington state constitution wanted to empower political parties directly to make their own appointments to vacancies they could have done so. But they didn’t.

Instead they created a system with checks and balances (remember that concept from Civics 101?). 

Party officials—typically elected with minuscule vote counts that get smaller with each election cycle*—take the first step. They presumably screen candidates to make sure they are in fact forwarding names of candidates who are members of the party that currently holds that particular seat.

One would hope they would also choose candidates who would do a good job as a state senator. Heaven knows we have enough examples of embarrassing and downright illegal actions by elected officials in both parties that responsible people don’t want to add to the mess, right?

The next step in this system of checks and balances is for the county commissioners to evaluate the three people put forward and to choose the person they collectively believe will do the best job in the seat.

When they make this selection they are not working for the Republican Party. They are fulfilling their constitutional role and are answerable to all the voters—not just Republicans. (And if this were about a vacant seat held by a Democrat, I certainly hope and expect they would choose the most qualified candidate--not someone weak who could easily be beaten by a Republican in the next election.)

Whoever they choose ends up in the state senate. He (in this case the 4th District saw fit to forward only men) will then vote on laws that affect every single voter and taxpayer in the entire State of Washington.

This is the second way in which the county commissioners have to represent me along with every other voter in Spokane County and in the entire state—not just the PCOs of the 4th District. They are putting a voice and a vote into the process that decides everything from rates of taxation to possible constitutional amendments.

It’s a weighty responsibility. I’m glad elected officials who got more than a handful of votes are there to think about the bigger picture, not just partisanship. 

We need elected officials who take this responsibility seriously, not ones who act as a rubber stamp out of fear for their own re-election prospects.

*In the August 2010 primary Roy Murry was elected PCO with 80 votes to his opponent's 72. Jeff Baxter, the other nominee for the Senate seat, was elected with 213 votes, running unopposed. On the November general election Al French won the only county commissioner race with 87,971 votes. The district boundaries are obviously quite different, but the point remains that county commissioners represent a far larger constituency.

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