Lewis County’s freeholder sub-district plan is constitutional, a judge ruled Thursday, clearing the way for ongoing freeholder elections to proceed without a legal cloud.
“(Lewis County) does have the discretion to meet goals and to modify its process in order to meet those goals, as long as that process is consistent with the (Washington) Constitution,” ruled Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy. “This court holds that the ordinance is not unconstitutional.”
At issue was the plan concocted by the county for the election of freeholders, in which it divided the three commission districts into five sub-districts apiece, creating new boundaries for each of the 15 positions on the ballot. State law requires freeholder elections to take place within legislative or commission districts, but no precedent had been set before Thursday on whether those boundaries could be further narrowed.
“This is a good ruling for Lewis County,” said civil deputy prosecutor Cullen Gatten, who successfully argued the county’s case. “The resolution was constitutionally valid, as we’ve known all along, and people should freely vote.”
The freeholder election currently taking place is part of a home rule charter that political action committee One Lewis County successfully petitioned to put on the ballot. If voters pass the charter measure, 15 freeholders will simultaneously be elected to draw up a new form of government for the county, which will then go before voters for approval.
Though One Lewis County initiated the charter, members grew concerned after the county opted to move it forward by creating sub-districts, instead of simply taking the top five vote-getters in each commission district. Because such a move is not specifically outlined in state law, members said they felt that allowing the election to proceed unchallenged would threaten the validity of their efforts to rework county government.
“I’m surprised,” said attorney Trevor Zandell, who argued for the plaintiffs — including One Lewis County member Kelly Smith-Johnston — that the measure was unconstitutional. “I respectfully disagree with the judge’s interpretation, but it’s her call to make.”
Zandell argued that by calling for the use of the legislative or commission districts, state law does not allow for further tweaks.
“The subject provision provides an either-or choice,” he said. “By specifically providing two options, the Legislature necessarily excluded all other options. … (Sub-districts) are not one of the two options.”
Gatten countered that municipalities have the authority to add election requirements to suit local needs, in this case looking out for rural candidates and voters whose voices might have been outweighed if the more population-heavy cities of Centralia and Chehalis had chosen five of their own to represent their districts.
“The county believes it’s important to have those people have their spot at the table,” he said. The spirit (of the home rule charter process) is intended to provide counties some discretion as long as it is in line with the general laws of our state. … It sounds to me like what it boils down to is plaintiffs didn’t like the fact that it was done this way.”
Zandell said that commissioners’ stated goal of boosting voters in rural areas constituted an activist approach to governing.
“It begs the question of what the county commissioners’ true motive was for creating sub-districts,” he said.
The motive question is one that has also been lobbed at One Lewis County, which was formed by the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce. Some freeholder candidates have contended the group is challenging the election because subdistricts denied it the chance to stack the deck with chosen candidates from the Twin Cities.
Chamber executive director Alicia Bull has vigorously denied that charge, saying the suit was only filed to ensure the election was constitutional, rather than open it to legal challenges after the fact. Bull did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but told The Chronicle earlier this month that the group would not appeal the ruling, regardless of the outcome.
“This is where we thought it would come,” said Lewis County prosecutor Jonathan Meyer. “We were happy the judge saw it the same way we did. … Hopefully it will bring a certain amount of finality to the issue.”
Following the hearing, Gatten said he was honored to have been part of a case that established constitutional precedent.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “I’m excited to have argued something that involves the state constitution. It’s always something I’ve wanted to do.”
Many freeholder candidates have argued that One Lewis County’s last-minute challenge will likely doom the home rule charter at the ballot box, regardless of the legal ruling. The plaintiffs were hoping the court would invalidate the election and call for a new election in 2019. Instead, the home rule charter will hang on the results of the ballots currently coming in, some of which will have been cast before the ruling. If the measure fails, it would take another signature-gathering and outreach process to put it on the ballot again, which Bull said earlier this month may be a possibility.
“That doesn’t mean that we can’t do it again,” she said. “We need to continue to look at how we’re going to make our county strong.”
Following the hearing, Zandell said settling the constitutional question made the effort crucial, even though he disagreed with the result.
“Bringing this forward was definitely worthwhile, regardless of the outcome,” he said. “It being settled is preferable to it not being settled, but we certainly would prefer it having been settled per our opinion and view on the topic.”