An effort to change Thurston County’s form of government resurfaced on the floor of the state House late last week, with a last-minute bill amendment that would require the county to add two members to its board of commissioners.
Some lawmakers this week expressed doubt that the amended measure, House Bill 2610, would clear the state Senate and ultimately become law. But the surprise changes to the bill — which originally wouldn’t have applied to Thurston County — angered Republican House members.
“I thought that was not a productive move, was not very respectful of the residents,” said state Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm, who said Thurston County residents should have a larger role in the decision.
Wilcox, the House Republican floor leader, called the Friday night debate on the measure “the most drama of the (legislative) session thus far.”
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The proposal, which would require Thurston County to establish a five-member board of commissioners, initially would have applied only to Spokane County. But state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, amended the bill Friday night so it would apply to any county with a population of more than 265,000, effectively adding Thurston County.
Hunt’s amendment mirrors one of the changes advocated last year by the “Better Thurston” campaign, which had pushed to establish a county charter and county executive, as well as replace Thurston County’s three-member Board of County Commissioners with a five-member county council.
The move to revive that debate on the House floor last week took Thurston County officials by surprise, said Thurston County Commissioner Bud Blake.
“I would have liked to have that discussion before a representative takes it to the floor,” said Blake, who ran for the county commission as an independent. “That never happened.”
The amended version of House Bill 2610 wouldn’t enact all of the changes sought by the “Better Thurston” campaign; it would only increase the number of Thurston County commissioners to five from three, and require the county to hold district-based elections for county commissioners in 2018.
The amended bill passed off the House floor on a 50-43 vote Friday, with all Republicans present voting against it, and only Democrats supporting it.
The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled state Senate, where Wilcox said Republican leaders would most likely block it, or change it so it once again applies only to Spokane County.
Hunt said he introduced the amendment partly because he feels strongly that a county as large as Thurston needs greater representation on its board of county commissioners. He said many people in the county have discussed moving to a five-commissioner system, so it’s not something the public hasn’t heard about.
Hunt said members of the public would have a chance to weigh in on the proposal during hearings in the Senate, should it advance further.
“Did we have a month of discussion about it? No,” Hunt said about his amendment. “But it was not a fait accompli.”
Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero said she is waiting to see how the measure fares in the Senate, but sees benefits to either structure of government, whether it be a five-member or three-member board.
Romero, a Democrat, said there are some difficulties that come with having a smaller board — mainly, that two commissioners can’t meet or get cup of coffee together without creating a quorum and triggering open public meeting legal requirements.
“It's very difficult,” Romero said. “We can't talk to each other.”
Blake, the other commissioner, said he’s not opposed to Thurston County having a five-member board of commissioners. But he said he would rather the county make that change later, such as in 2023 or 2025, instead of this year when it’s working on other important issues, such as discussing how to fund a habitat conservation plan for four threatened subspecies of pocket gophers.
“I just want it to die,” Blake said of the bill in the Legislature.
“I just think there is a better time to do this than right now.”
Staff writers Brynn Grimley and Lisa Pemberton contributed to this report.