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Reviewed 12/2013

County Forms of Government

Contents

Introduction

Article 11, sections 3 through 5 of the Washington Constitution control the creation and governance of counties. The constitution allows for two forms of county government: 1) the "commission" form; and 2) the "home rule" charter form. Article 11, section 16 of the Washington Constitution also allows home rule charter counties and the cities within them to consolidate into one government entity.

This webpage offers a brief overview of the commission and home rule charter forms of county government and the consolidated city-county option for home rule charter counties, including basic legal references and information on the current status of county government forms in Washington's 39 counties.

Articles

Commission Form of County Government

Article 11, section 5 of the Washington Constitution makes the commission form the standard form of county government throughout the state for counties that do not adopt a home rule charter and sets forth, in general terms, the governmental structure that all commission counties must have. Of Washington's 39 counties, 33 "noncharter" counties operate under the commission form of government provided by state law.

The commission form is often referred to as the "plural executive" form of government. Under the commission form, the county governing body consists of a three-member board of commissioners, elected on a partisan basis, who serve as the county's legislative body and also perform executive functions. Counties with populations greater than 300,000 can increase the size of the commission from three to five members.

While the county commissioners establish the budget and act as the county legislative body, they share administrative functions with several other independently-elected county officials, including a clerk, treasurer, sheriff, assessor, coroner, and auditor (or recorder). The county prosecuting attorney and the judges of the superior court are also independently elected.

Although there is no constitutional or statutory requirement for county commissioners to delegate any of their executive authority to a separately-appointed administrator, many of them have, to a limited degree, chosen to do so.

Statutes - Commission Form of County Government

"Home Rule" Charter Form of Government

Article 11, section 4 of the state constitution was amended in 1948 to provide the option for counties to adopt "home rule" charters to provide their own form of government that may be different from the commission form prescribed by state law. Home rule charters can provide for any county officers deemed necessary to perform county functions, but they cannot affect the election of the prosecuting attorney, the county superintendent of schools, the judges of the superior court, and the justices of the peace, or the jurisdiction of the courts.

After adoption of a charter, the powers, authority, and duties of county officers provided for by state law, except for the prosecuting attorney, are vested in the county legislative authority, unless the charter expressly assigns powers and duties to specific officers. The duties of the board of county commissioners and other elected officers may also be modified by charter. The commissioners and other elected officers may be entirely replaced, subject to certain restrictions.

Home rule charters can also provide the powers of initiative and referendum to the citizens of the county. All charter counties have adopted initiative and referendum powers.

Current Washington Charter Counties and Their Form of Government

Six Washington counties have successfully adopted home rule charters - King (1969), Clallam (1979), Whatcom (1979), Snohomish (1980), Pierce (1981) and San Juan (2005). Several other counties, including Kitsap, Island (1976, 1995), Thurston, Cowlitz (1998), Ferry (1993), Skamania (1994), Spokane (1995) and Clark counties, have tried and failed to adopt charters.

Of the six charter counties, four have adopted the council-elected executive form (King, Whatcom, Snohomish, and Pierce), one has adopted the council-appointed administrator form (San Juan) and one has adopted the commission-appointed administrator form (Clallam).

Washington County Forms of Government, Elected and Appointed Officials Summary

County Year Form Elected Officials Appointed Officials
King 1969 Council-Elected Executive Nine-member Council (NP)
County Executive (NP)
Assessor (NP)
Prosecuting Attorney (P)
Sheriff (NP)
Director of Elections (NP)
Auditor
County Administrative Officer
Treasury Operations Manager
Clerk
Medical Examiner
Whatcom 1978 Council-Elected Executive Seven-member Council (NP)
County Executive (NP)
Assessor (NP)
Prosecuting Attorney (P)
Auditor (NP)
Sheriff (NP)
Treasurer (NP) Clerk
Clerk
Deputy Administrator
Medical Examiner
Clallam 1979 Commission-Appointed Administrator Three-member Commission (P)
Assessor (NP)
Prosecuting Attorney/Coroner (P)
Auditor (NP)
Sheriff (NP)
Treasurer (NP)
Community Development Director (NP)
County Administrator
Clerk
Snohomish 1980 Council-Elected Executive Five-member Council (P)
County Executive (P)
Prosecuting Attorney (P)
Assessor (NP)
Auditor (NP)
Sheriff (NP)
Clerk (NP)
Treasurer (NP)
Medical Examiner
Pierce 1981 Council-Elected Executive Seven-member Council (P)
County Executive (P)
Prosecuting Attorney (P)
Sheriff (P)
Assessor-Treasurer (P)
Auditor (P)
Clerk
Medical Examiner
San Juan 2005 Commission-Appointed Administrator Six-member Council (NP)
Prosecuting Attorney/Coroner (P)
Assessor (NP)
Auditor (NP)
Clerk (NP)
Sheriff (NP)
Treasurer (NP)
County Administrator

Council-Elected Executive Form (King, Whatcom, Snohomish, and Pierce)

In the council-elected executive form, the county executive is elected by the voters and serves as the head of the executive branch of government. The county council is the legislative branch of government, and it enacts ordinances, adopts the budget, and exercises oversight of the administration. Its role is similar to the role of a city council in a mayor-council city. The county executive has the power to veto legislation; however, a veto can be overridden by the council with a two-thirds majority vote or greater. The county executive proposes policies to the council, executes policies adopted by the council, prepares a budget, and has responsibility for general administration of the county. The county executive appoints and may dismiss department heads, generally with the consent of the council. The county executive's role is similar to the role of a mayor in a mayor-council city.

Commission/Council-Appointed Administrator Form (San Juan and Clallam)

In this form, an elected body, be it a county commission or council, continues to have the policy-making, legislative, and budget-adoption functions. However, the council or commission delegates all or a portion of its administrative authority to an appointed professional administrator with the specific intent of enhancing administrative coordination and control functions. As an appointed official, the county administrator serves at the pleasure of the council or commission.

Council Size

Except for Clallam County, all of the charter counties (King, Pierce, San Juan, Snohomish, and Whatcom) have opted for larger councils. The size of the council ranges from five members in Snohomish County to nine in King County.

Partisan vs. Nonpartisan

Partisanship is mixed in the charter counties. The members of the legislative bodies in Pierce, Snohomish, and Clallam counties are elected on a partisan basis, while the council positions in King, Whatcom and San Juan Counties are elected on a nonpartisan basis. The county executives in Pierce and Snohomish counties are elected on a partisan basis, while the King and Whatcom County executives are elected on a nonpartisan basis. Most of the other independently-elected officials (execpt for prosecuting attorneys) are nonpartisan, except for those in Pierce county. All county elective offices in noncharter counties, other than judicial offices, are partisan offices.

Elected vs. Appointed Officials

A county charter can make any elected county official, except the prosecuting attorney and superior court judges, an appointive rather than an elective position. Most of the charter counties have done so only selectively. The office of county clerk has been made an appointive position in four of the six charter counties (King, Whatcom, Clallam, and Pierce). The office of medical examiner has also been made an appointive position in four of the six charter counties (King, Whatcom, Snohomish, and Pierce). Most other county officials, with a few exceptions, remain as elective positions. The assessor is an elected position in every county, although some make the position nonpartisan. The auditor is an elected officer in all but one county (King), where the auditor is appointed by the council. The sheriff is an elected position in all of the charter counties. Finally, the treasurer continues to be an elected position in all but one county (King).

To determine the particular organization structure of a home rule county government, refer to the county's charter.

Constitutional Provisions

  • Washington Constitution, Article 11, section 4 (as amended by Amendment 21 (1948)) - Provides for adoption of county home rule charters as a method of providing flexible, alternative forms of county government. Specifies procedures for adoption of a charter and sets out limitations on the ability of a charter to affect certain elected positions.

County Home Rule Charters

Consolidated City-County Government

At the same time the state constitution was amended in 1948 to allow counties to adopt "home rule" charters, another amendment was adopted to allow counties with a "home rule" charter to provide for the formation and government of a combined city and county municipal corporation known as a "city-county." The same procedures applicable to the adoption of a county charter also govern the adoption of a city-county charter, except that the only method of beginning the combined city-county charter process is through a voter petition. There is no minimum population requirement.

In addition to providing for an alternative form of county government, a city-county charter may also merge the county with cities and other municipal corporations within its boundaries. Consolidated city-county governments have been proposed as a way to improve local government service provision by eliminating conflicts between competing levels of local government. Although a few Washington counties have explored this option, no combined city-county governments have yet been formed.

Related MRSC Resources

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