That regional government we so desperately need is called a county council

A brief history of King County government, and a question: Instead of creating a new regional transportation authority, as proposed in the Legislature, why not just empower our existing county councils to jointly convene?
Crosscut archive image.

The King County Council. (King County)

A brief history of King County government, and a question: Instead of creating a new regional transportation authority, as proposed in the Legislature, why not just empower our existing county councils to jointly convene?

The centerpiece of the debate over today's decision on Proposition 1 is our old regional standby, roads vs. transit. Supporters say we need both; opponents on opposite wings of the political spectrum say one, but not the other. A peripheral but important issue is governance. We have been arguing about regional governance at least as long as we have been arguing about whether to lay asphalt or tracks. People on all sides of the debate seem to agree that the region needs a new governmental entity to manage transportation. The irony is we have a working, proportional, directly elected regional governance structure already in place. They're called county councils. Unfortunately, we just don't trust them.

In the beginning, cities governed and provided intense levels of local urban services, while counties were responsible for the unincorporated rural area. That is how our state constitution and tax structure were set up. After World War II, however, urban growth, and the need for more services, spread into what had been farming communities, creating new problems. No one had the authority to run a bus system into and out of Seattle or build a regional sewer system. A new form of urban government was needed for the region.

Establishing a pattern, instead of empowering King County, our forefathers created a semi-democratic, appointed regional governing body, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, known for short as Metro. Governed by its own appointed council, Metro was given a wide array of regional responsibilities, but the only two it utilized were the authorities to develop and govern regional bus and sewer systems. The Metro Council was comprised of city and county officials, elected locally but given broad regional authority.

In 1990, a federal judge ruled that the Metro structure was unconstitutional because some officials appointed to the Metro council represented far more people than others did, violating our basic protection of "one man, one vote." Regional leaders reluctantly responded by merging Metro with King County – sort of.

The King County Council has final say over sewers and metro buses, but they must first submit sewer and transit plans to regional hybrid committees made of county council members and elected officials from Seattle and the suburban cities. Similar appointed, federated bodies abound throughout the world of regional governance: the Growth Management Planning Council, the Sound Transit board, the Regional Transportation Improvement District board, the Puget Sound Regional Council, the Board of Health, and on and on and on. All of these bodies are comprised of county and city officials appointed by their respective jurisdictions - just like the old Metro Council.

In addition, when a major road project crosses jurisdictional boundaries, such as Highway 520 between Seattle and the Eastside suburbs, or Interstate 90, every jurisdiction has a voice and a vote in the siting and planning process.

Through annexations and incorporations, the area and population of unincorporated King County has steadily shrunk. As King County's direct service responsibilities have declined, the county is supposed to have transitioned to a government focused on big regional issues, such as land use and transportation. But like Gulliver on the island of Lilliput, the county finds itself a giant unable to move and function. The King County Council is the one legislative body which proportionally represents all the people and regions of the county, and the county is the one government charged with planning for the future of the entire county, yet it is not empowered to act as the final decision maker on most major issues, including transportation. Why?

Seattle and the suburban cities vigorously assert their right to have someone "at the table," representing their interests. This argument ignores the obvious fact that County Council members are elected proportionately, by district. Seattle has four representatives on the County Council, elected by the people of Seattle, so why do they need more seats at the regional table? U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott represents Seattle in Washington, D.C. The legislative delegation does the same in Olympia. Why not trust Bob Ferguson, Larry Phillips, Dow Constantine, and Larry Gossett at the regional level?

City leaders are simply unwilling to voluntarily give up their traditional role as regional leaders, and cities, especially Seattle, have powerful friends. The County Council is partisan, and suburban and rural members have real authority over many issues. The County Council is culturally more akin to the state legislature than it is to the quiet, consensus-seeking city councils. These differences make city leaders nervous, and through the years, the cities and their good government allies have succeeded in preventing the county from becoming a true regional government.

Now the Legislature is debating creating a regional transportation commission to govern all forms of transportation. Some commission members would be appointed, some elected. The bill passed the Senate last year but died in the House. It is sure to be back in some form next year.

We don't need another regional government; we need to trust the ones we have. The Legislature should act to make counties true regional governments with authority over all regional issues, especially transportation. For issues that cross county boundaries, empower the county councils to meet together as a regional legislative body with their votes weighted according to population. We already use this structure to fill vacant elected positions. Dissolve the Sound Transit and RTID boards and allow county councils, meeting together, to plan for and govern our regional transportation future.

Puget Sound is known as the process capital of the world. Part of the reason is our unwillingness to trust county government. Instead of creating a new government, lets empower the ones we have.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.