SPOKANE — The era of the five-member Spokane County Commission has gotten off to a contentious and bitter beginning.
Political battles were to be expected when the commission this year transitioned from three to five members, but instead of a fight between liberals and conservatives, the new commission has kicked off with a Republican-on-Republican attack.
“She sided with the Democrats,” Republican Spokane County Commissioner Al French said of new Spokane County Commission Chair Mary Kuney, another Republican.
On Tuesday afternoon, the county commissioners voted 3-2 to elect Kuney as their chair. Kuney voted for herself alongside Democrats Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan while French and fellow Republican Josh Kerns opposed her selection. The decision to pick a chair was the inaugural vote of the newly structured commission.
Chairing the Spokane County Commission won’t give Kuney any power over her fellow commissioners.
“You basically lead the meetings, you work with the CEO and the clerk to prepare the agenda, you present the position of the board to the public,” French said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Despite the chair’s limited powers, the contested vote reveals a divide between Kuney and her fellow conservatives. That matters because Kuney, French and Kerns will likely need to vote together on a handful of key issues now that two Democrats, with significantly different political ideologies, sit on the commission.
The three Republicans, who have served together for more than five years, rarely differ politically. Nearly all of their votes are unanimous.
But Kerns and French had scathing words for Kuney during Tuesday’s meeting and after the vote.
In a news release, the two commissioners said that, by voting for herself as chair, Kuney is “effectively ushering in a Democrat majority.”
Kuney strongly rebuffed that characterization. She pointed out during an interview that she recently swore in Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner, Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels and Spokane County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald when they took the oath of office following the November election.
“Do you think they would want a Democrat to swear them in?” Kuney asked. “I’ve proven that I’m a strong Republican.”
In addition to questioning her Republican convictions, French and Kerns leveled a few specific criticisms against Kuney.
Both said she shouldn’t be chair because she’ll miss too many meetings and will have to participate in some meetings virtually, using Zoom.
“Commissioner Kuney, please don’t take offense to this, but chair is a position that I personally think needs to be present,” Kerns said during the meeting. “They need to be in the room.”
Kuney serves as president of the Washington State Association of Counties, a responsibility that requires her to travel frequently.
“This is going to take a lot of work and having a chair that’s not going to be present is going to be difficult for the rest of us,” French said during the meeting.
Kuney said her responsibilities as president of the state Association of Counties won’t affect her attendance.
“The fact that they want to say I’m not dedicated really upsets me,” she said. “I’m doing what I need to do to take care of business back home and take care of the citizens of Spokane County.”
On top of denouncing her attendance, French and Kerns said they don’t think Kuney is a true conservative.
“On the tough votes, she basically hasn’t been there,” French said in an interview.
As evidence, Kerns and French pointed to a vote on Dec. 11, 2018, when they passed a law requiring the county’s contract negotiations with its unions to be held in public. A state Supreme Court decision last month effectively declared that law illegal and the commissioners will have to amend it.
Kuney wasn’t in Spokane on Dec. 11, 2018. French and Kerns said she strategically avoided having to vote on the law, a claim Kuney denies. She said she was in Olympia attending a training seminar for newly elected officials and also noted the vote wasn’t on the commissioners’ agenda.
Kerns and French also pointed out that on Dec. 13 Kuney missed a vote related to the Spokane County Jail. French and Kerns that day opted to put a 0.2% sales tax measure on the Nov. 7 ballot. If approved, that tax would raise more than a billion dollars, pay for a new jail and fund a wide range of criminal justice and public safety efforts.
“She let us know that she would be traveling and she would be calling in for that and she never called in,” Kerns said in an interview.
Kuney, who was in Bozeman, Montana, that day on behalf of the state Association of Counties, said she intended to attend the meeting via Zoom. She couldn’t make the meeting due to travel issues.
“My flight was delayed,” she said. “You can look at the flight schedule.”
Kuney supports building a new detention facility but is unsure a 0.2% sales tax is the best way to pay for it. She has noted that former Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich opposes using a sales tax to pay for a new jail.
Significant fights between the three GOP commissioners have been rare, but this isn’t the first time French has attacked another Republican on the commission.
During a public meeting in 2015, French accused then-commissioners Todd Mielke and Shelly O’Quinn of spending time together on weekends and having a personal relationship “that’s outside of the Board of County Commissioners.”
O’Quinn and Mielke called the comment “completely inappropriate” and said French’s implication was false.
While the vote for chair was vicious, all five commissioners agreed Kerns was the best candidate for vice chair. Kerns will lead commission meetings when Kuney is unavailable.