New County Movement Threatens Establishment

- Citizens in Washington State work to reestablish primacy of local government -

We live in the era of big government: huge federal government, big state government, even big local governments. Citizens in Washington state, however, are using a provision in the state constitution to rein in government by seceding from their counties and forming new counties within the confines of the old parent counties.

Citizens committees to form new counties have sprung up across the state and are spreading like wildfire. There are nine new counties being proposed in Washington. Four of them have gained signatures from a majority of voters within their jurisdiction, which is required to break away. Five others are still collecting signatures but seem poised to soon achieve their goals.

Cedar, Skykomish and Freedom counties are being created out of King and Snohomish counties around Seattle. On the Canadian border, Pioneer County is being created out of Whatcom County. The five others are River (near Vancouver), Puget Sound, West Seattle and Vashon (near Seattle), and Liberty County (out of Grant County in central Washington).

Why are they seceding? Lois Gustafson, president of Cedar County Committee, says the bid to create new counties aims "to bring thegovernment close to the people." Joe Ahrend, of Citizens for River County, says "taxes are out of control. Every time someone wants to do something with their land it seems there's some endangered bug on it. We have no say on how money is spent, finally we said enough is enough." Amy Hansen of Skykomish County Committee says the movement is about "representation, local control, less bureaucracy, more responsive officials, and smaller government."

In the view of these leaders, county govemments have become too distant, too bureaucratic, too large, too meddlesome and too entrenched, and have forgotten that local officials are supposed to serve the people rather than other bureaucracies in Olympia and Washington, D.C. Many of the issues that have brought this movement into being involve restriction on development and use of private property.

Leaders say they plan to eliminate most of the local regulations. Another issue that has thrown the establishment into panic is the new county leaders' stated intent to reassert local control over things like law enforcement and education, which have come increasingly under control of state and federal government.The mission statement of Citizens for River County, for example, says that the new county will accept no federal or state education funds. Rather than trying to maintain an expensive public school bureaucracy, they say they will actually encourage alternatives like home schooling.

Secession as a Check on Government

It has-been said that the ultimate voting power is the power to vote with your feet. When governments become too burdensome, people leave their jurisdiction. To stem the loss of revenue government then either must become less burdensome, or extend its jurisdiction to make it impractical for anyone to leave. This being true, the easier it is to leave a government jurisdiction the less burdensome that government can be. The ultimate extension of this principle is the ability for small communities to leave a govemment's jurisdiction without having to move geographically.

As one would expect, the political establishment in Washington state does not look favorably on these movements, but supporters are using a provision of the Washington constitution which seems to allow for the creation of new counties on fairly easy terms.

Article I 1, section 3 of the Washington constitution reads:

New Counties. No new counties shall be established which shall reduce any county to a population less than four thousand (4,000), nor shall a new county be formed containing a less population than two thousand (2,000). There shall be no territory stricken from any county unless a majority of the voters living in such territory shall petition therefore and then only under such conditions as may be prescribed by general law applicable to the whole state.

What is unique about this provision is that unlike many constitutions which require the permission of the old county in order to create a new one; here, all that is required is a petition by a Majority of voters in the territory to form the new county.

Theoretically, if you are not happy with the way your local government is running things, all you have to do is get together with a couple thousand of your neighbors, and you can secede and start your own county. It is never quite as easy as that. The political establishment in the state has being doing everything it can to prevent the formation of new counties.

The Establishment Fights Back

Although the secretary of state's office has certified that the petitions have achieved the number of signatures needed, the new counties cannot come into existence until the state legislature enacts legislation specifying how these splits are to take place. The legislature will divide up the assets and liabilities of the old county, and set the official county boundaries. Last spring, State Rep. John Koster, a Republican from the district of the proposed Skykomish County, introduced bills to bring into existence three of these new counties.

The bills faced the united opposition of Democrats in the state legislature, but Republicans have a majority in both houses. Nevertheless, Republican support for the new counties proved lukewarm. Only the one bill to create Skykomish County was actually brought up for a vote in the House, and passed. Pressure from Democrat Gov. Gary Locke prevented any such bill from being considered in the state Senate, despite its Republican control. One of the staffers on the committee handing the creation of new counties said he believes the passage of the Skykomish County bill through the House represented a sop thrown to supporters of the new counties rather than any senous, commitment from most members.

The official creation of the three counties remains in limbo until next year, when the state legislature can resurrect the measures. But supporters of the new counties insist that they will never rest until the new counties come into existence. The other proposed county with enough signatures, Cedar County, is pursuing a slightly different route. The Cedar County committee has maintained that the petition process constitutes a special election.

The committee has filed suit with the state Supreme Court, asking the court to order the secretary of state's office to certify the petition process as an election. They feel that if the process is certified as an election, the legislature will have no choice but to pass legislation bringing the county into existence. John Stokes, one of the founders of the new county movement, has taken an even more creative approach.

In a move which is controversial even within the new county movement, Stokes has filed a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Commission arguing that "the right of self-determination and self-government.are being denied by the state of Washington." Supporters hope the complaint will embarrass Gov. Locke enough to get him to drop his opposition.

While the opposition of the political establishment may delay the creation of new counties, it has done nothing to dilute the ardor of the new county movement. If anything, such resistance has energized the movement even more, and has shown the need for more representative government. Citizens for River County started their movement in the summer of 1996 and in less than a year the committee has collected more than 4,000 signatures - about a third of the total needed.

Success Stories

While secession has always been opposed by existing establishments, there have been a couple of notable successes in recent years. In 1983, through a petition process very similar to that being used in Washington, the northern half of Yuma County, Ariz. broke away to form the new county of La Paz. The political establishment in Arizona apparently was caught off guard by the move and was unable to stop it. Nevertheless, after La Paz came into existence and it appeared that other counties might also break apart, the state changed its law to make county secession much more difficult.

Another success story in progress is the secession of the San Fernando Valley from the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles has a population larger than many states, and larger than many countries; it is a huge, sprawling city. The size and population of the city has meant that local government does not really exist in the ordinary sense of the word. For years the population of San Fernando has sought to break away from Los Angeles and become its own city, but the Los Angeles city council has had veto power over loss of any section of the city.

Finally, this spring, because of public outcry, the city of Los Angeles has dropped its veto of the new proposal and is accepting a compromise bill in the California legislature, which will remove the veto power of the city council. Senate bill 176 and assembly bill 62 sailed through committee and seem ready to pass the full legislature, to be signed by Gov. Wilson. This proposal will allow San Fernando to secede from Los Angeles with a majority vote of the Los Angeles residents.

That vote is not assured, but supporters feel that they finally have a real chance.

Secession of any sort has never been easy. The American colonies fought a long war for their independence. Madison remarked in Federalist 14 that one of the advantages of the American federal system, provided for in Article 4 Section 3, was that when states became too populous for effective self-government they could divide and form new states.

Jealousy among states for representation in the Senate, and the desire of established governments to keep as many subjects as possible, has prevented this from happening. Nevertheless, on the local level we are beginning to see a revival of the old idea that self-government means local government.

At a time when politicians are increasingly moving towards large, centralized government, citizens are finding an effective tool in returning to smaller, more local government. The United States was founded on the idea of self-determination and local control - just maybe we have a chance to get back to it.

Paul Clark is chairman of the Coalition for Local Sovereignty, and tracks citizen efforts to gain more local control over their affairs. For more information on this burgeoning movement or related issues, contact Clark at 58 Crescent Road, Suite B, Greenbelt, MD. 20770, or call (301) 982-1360. .


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