This page provides an overview of the common elected and appointed positions in Washington State county government.
Historically, the role of counties has been to serve as an administrative arm of the state—maintaining records, providing courts and law enforcement, building roads, assessing property and collecting taxes, and conducting elections. Counties still perform these functions, as well as a growing list of other functions, under the supervision of various elected and appointed officials.
Of the 39 counties, 32 "noncharter" counties operate under the commission form of government provided by state law. In these counties, all of the officials listed below are elected per RCW 36.16.030. Seven counties (King, Whatcom, Clallam, Snohomish, Pierce, San Juan, and Clark) have adopted "home rule" charters as provided for in the state constitution. Adoption of a home rule charter allows a county to choose a different form of government from the commission form specified by statute and to alter the status and functions of some of the county elected officials. In the seven charter counties some elected positions have been made appointive.
Each of the sections below contains a brief description of the basic powers and duties of the top elected and appointed county officials. Relevant constitutional provisions, statutes and other helpful resources are also listed.
Ch. 36.21 RCW outlines the general duties and authority of the county assessor. The primary responsibility of the county assessor is to determine the value of all taxable real and personal property in both the incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county for the purpose of determining the tax liabilities of the taxpayers in the various taxing districts in an equitable manner. The county assessor is responsible for the calculation of property tax levies necessary to raise revenues for government services and administers a variety of tax exemptions, including the exemption and deferral programs for low income senior citizens and disabled persons.
A number of record-keeping and administrative functions are necessary to appraise property, determine property valuations, and calculate tax levies in accordance with the legal requirements. The county assessor generally maintains the tax assessor's parcel maps and legal descriptions of tax parcels as well as other records relating to property valuation.
Requirements for accurate and timely property value determinations and valuations consistent with applicable land development plans and regulations have made the county assessor's responsibilities increasingly complex (see RCW 36.70B.230, 84.40.030, and 84.41.030). A taxpayer who disagrees with the county assessor's value determinations has a right to appeal the decision to the county board of equalization, which is basically the county board of property tax appeals.
The county assessor is also responsible for certifying assessed valuation of taxable property to the board of any air pollution control authority with jurisdiction in the county (RCW 70.94.095).
The assessor is an elected position in every county.
Ch. 36.22 RCW and Ch. 65.04 RCW outline the general duties and authority of the county auditor. The county auditor has a broad range of duties and responsibilities involving specific statutory functions and county financial administration. The auditor examines and audits county financial records and may prepare the preliminary county budget for the board of county commissioners (RCW 36.40.010—.040). The auditor also has functions relating to special districts.
The functions and duties of the county auditor vary among counties, and the auditor's role in county financial administration is often revised in charter counties. Many of the auditors' statutory duties are not associated with county finance. In counties with less than 5,000 population the auditor may be combined with the county clerk (RCW 36.16.032).
The primary statutory responsibilities of the county auditor are:
- Recording real property documents, such as deeds and other recorded documents.
- Issuing licenses, titles, and registration for motor vehicles and watercraft as well as issuing various licenses, such as marriage and business licenses.
- Collecting certain fees and taxes, acting as agent for the state Department of Revenue.
- Overseeing elections and voter registration, acting as ex-officio supervisor of elections and administering voter registration and elections (RCW 29.04.020).
- Performing financial audit and administrative duties, which may include auditing county expenditures, along with preparation and administration of the county budget and other county fiscal management functions.
- Serving as ex-officio supervisor of the state Auditor's Office Division of Municipal Corporations.
- Acting as clerk of the board of county commissioners if the board does not reassign that function (RCW 36.22.010(6) and 36.32.110).
The auditor is an elected officer in every county but King County.
Clerk (Superior Court Clerk)
Per Article 4, Section 26 of the State Constitution, the county clerk is the administrative and financial officer for the state superior court of the county and is responsible for court records, including entry of all orders, judgments and decrees issued by the court. Ch. 36.23 RCW and Ch. 2.32 RCW outline the roles and authority of the clerk position.
The county clerk provides a number of services in connection with the court system, including maintaining court records and exhibits, administering oaths, managing the jury system, acting as a quasi-judicial officer for the issuance of writs and subpoenas, and providing citizens with access to public court records. The county clerk also has certain non-court functions such as holding bonds for public officials and keeping records for certain special purpose districts.
The clerk is an elected office in all but four charter counties (King, Whatcom, Clallam and Pierce).
Board of County Commissioners/County Council
The board of county commissioners or, in most “home rule” charter counties, the county council, is the legislative authority for the county. In the 32 noncharter counties, the county commissioners also serve as the chief administrators for most county operations. RCW 36.32.010 provides for the election of three county commissioners in noncharter counties. This number can be increased to five in counties with a population of 300,000 or more (RCW 36.32.055).
Council size in the charter counties is set by the terms of the charter. In the four charter counties with a council-executive form of government (King, Whatcom, Snohomish, and Pierce), the county council is the legislative authority and most administrative functions have been assigned by charter to an elected county executive. In the other three charter counties (Clallam, Clark, and San Juan), the board of commissioners (in the case of Clallam County) or the county council (in the case of Clark and San Juan Counties) is the legislative authority and most administrative functions have been assigned to an appointed county administrator.
Depending upon the county charter and ordinances, the board of commissioners/county council may also have quasi-judicial duties, such as hearing appeals of local land use decisions. Some boards/councils have established a hearing examiner system and appointed a hearing examiner to hold hearings on quasi-judicial land use matters.
Ch. 36.32 RCW outlines the duties and authority of the county commissioners/council members. Primarily, these duties include the adoption of ordinances, resolutions, and motions. As outlined in Ch. 36.40 RCW, the board of commissioners/county council must also perform certain financial duties, such as levying taxes, appropriating revenue, and adopting the final budget for the county. The board of commissioners/county council generally confirms appointments to county boards and commissions and appoints members of the boundary review board and planning commission in counties that have created these entities. The commissioners/council members can also sit as the board of equalization (basically, the county board of property tax appeals) to review disputed assessments.
All county commissioners and councilmembers are, of course, elected.
Ch. 36.24 RCW outlines the general duties and authority of the county coroner. In counties with a population of 250,000 or more, the county legislative authority may, upon confirmation by county voters, replace the elected office of coroner with an appointed medical examiner (RCW 36.24.190). In counties with a population under 40,000, the county prosecuting attorney serves as the coroner (RCW 36.16.030). In counties with a medical examiner system, the medical examiner performs the functions of the coroner and may perform other duties, such as autopsies and lab studies (RCW 46.52.065 and 68.50.010). While not common, the county coroner is also authorized by law to serve as the county sheriff under certain conditions (RCW 36.24.010).
The office of coroner is an elected office in 18 of the noncharter counties. One noncharter county (Spokane) has established an appointed medical examiner position under RCW 36.24.190. The position of medical examiner has also been made an appointive position in five of the seven charter counties (King, Whatcom, Snohomish, Clark, and Pierce), while the elected county prosecuting attorney serves as coroner in the remaining two charter counties (Clallam and San Juan).
There are no constitutional or state statutory provisions addressing the positions of county executive or county administrator. The authority and duties of the county executive/administrator in a charter county can only be determined by a review of the individual county charter. In general, counties adopting the council-executive or council-administrator form of government have a county council (or commission, in the case of Clallam County), that serves as a legislative body responsible for establishing policy, and an elected executive or appointed administrator that is responsible for the implementation of council/commission policies and the day-to-day administration of county government functions and services.
Some noncharter counties operating under the commission form of government have created the appointed position of county administrator. The county administrator performs functions similar to a county executive; however, the position of county administrator is not an elective office.
The elected office of county executive exists only in the four charter counties (King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Whatcom) that have adopted "home rule" charters providing for a council-executive form of government. The remaining three charter counties (San Juan, Clark, and Clallam) have established appointed county administrator positions.
Ch. 36.27 RCW outlines the general duties and authority of the prosecuting attorney. The county prosecuting attorney has major responsibilities as the legal representative of the state and counties in actions and proceedings before the courts and other judicial officers. The prosecuting attorney is the legal advisor and attorney for all county elected and appointed officials. The prosecuting attorney prosecutes violators of state law and county code in the county superior and district courts and appears for and represents the state and county in other types of criminal and civil actions.
The prosecuting attorney represents the county whenever the county is a party to a legal action and acts as general legal advisor to all county officers. The state legislature has restricted the ability of the board of commissioners/county council to contract with any other attorney to perform any of the functions of the prosecuting attorney, and any contract must be approved by the presiding judge of the county superior court (RCW 36.32.200).
The county prosecutor has other statutory responsibilities, such as election administration (including preparation of ballot titles for county measures under RCW 29A.36.071), and canvassing election returns. The prosecuting attorney acts as ex-officio coroner in counties under 40,000 (RCW 36.16.030). In counties with a population less than 8,000, the prosecuting attorney maintains the county law libraries (RCW 27.24.068).
The prosecuting attorney has an important role as part of the state judicial system and is a quasi-judicial officer. The office of prosecuting attorney is unique among county elected officials in that the elected status, authority, and responsibility of the prosecuting attorney cannot be changed by a county "home rule" charter. The prosecuting attorney has the same role in charter and noncharter counties. Individual county prosecutors are required members for a number of state boards and commissions, such as the Criminal Justice Training Commission and the Forensic Investigations Council, as well as other groups relating to judicial and criminal justice issues.
Ch. 36.28. RCW outlines the general duties and authority of the sheriff. The county sheriff is the chief executive officer and conservator of the peace of the county. The sheriff has a number of duties relating to: (1) law enforcement and public safety, (2) jails and confinement facilities, and (3) civil functions for the court system. Counties have the option of creating a department of corrections to be in charge of the county jail, rather than the sheriff, under RCW 70.48.090(4). Many county sheriffs are involved in county emergency services functions, and a sheriff may serve as the Director of Emergency Services for the county. Most (though not all) employees in the sheriff's office are covered by a statutory civil service system establishing a merit system for employment (Ch. 41.14 RCW).
Ch. 36.29 RCW outlines the general duties and authority of the county treasurer. The county treasurer is the custodian of the county's money and the administrator of the county's financial transactions. In addition to providing financial services for the county, the county treasurer provides similar services to special purpose districts and other units of local government, including the responsibility to receipt, disburse, invest, and account for the funds of each of these entities. The treasurer receives and disburses funds, invests funds held, and maintains financial records in accordance with accepted accounting principles. The county treasurer is also responsible for collection of various taxes, including legal proceedings to collect past due amounts (RCW 36.29.100). The county treasurer has other miscellaneous duties such as conducting bond sales and sales of surplus county property.
In some counties, especially charter counties, some of the duties of the county treasurer have been assigned to an executive finance department under an appointed county financial officer.
The treasurer is an elected office in all but one county (King).