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, 33 "noncharter" counties operate under the commission form of government provided by state law. In these counties, all of the officials listed above are elected. Six counties (King, Whatcom, Clallam, Snohomish, Pierce and San Juan) 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 six charter counties some of the elected positions listed above 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.
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. 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 assessor is an elected position in every county.
- Ch. 36.21 RCW - General provisions on duty and authority of county assessor
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county assessor as required elected official
- RCW 36.70B.230 - Copies of all GMA comprehensive plans and development regulations for cities and counties planning under the GMA must be provided to the county assessor
- RCW 84.40.030 - Real property appraisals must be consistent with GMA comprehensive plans and development regulations and other zoning regulations
- RCW 84.41.030 - Effect of planning and development regulation proceedings on property values
- Title 84 RCW- Property taxes
- RCW 70.94.094 - Duty to certify assessed valuation of taxable property to the board of any air pollution control authority with jurisdiction in the county
Assessor Professional Organizations and Resources
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. 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.
The primary statutory responsibilities of the county auditor are: (1) recording (recording of real property documents such as deeds and other recorded documents); (2) licensing (licensing, titling, and registration for motor vehicles and watercraft, issuing various licenses such as marriage and business licenses, and acting as agent for the state Department of Revenue in collecting certain fees and taxes); (3) elections and voter registration (acting as ex-officio supervisor of elections and administering voter registration and elections); (4) county financial audit and administration (duties may include auditing county expenditures, serving as ex officio supervisor of the state Auditor's Office Division of Municipal Corporations, preparation and administration of the county budget, and other county fiscal management functions); and (5) clerk of the board of county commissioners (if the board of commissioners does not reassign that function).
The auditor is an elected officer in every county but King County.
- Ch. 36.22 RCW -General provisions on duty and authority of county auditor
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county auditor as required elected official
- RCW 36.16.032 - Provides that the office of county auditor may be combined with the office of county clerk in counties with less than 5,000 population
- RCW 36.22.010(6) and RCW 36.32.110 - County auditor serves as clerk of board of county commissioners unless board designates one of its own employees to serve as clerk of the board
- Ch. 36.40 RCW - Duties of county auditor in preparing preliminary county budget
- RCW 29.04.020 - County auditor is ex officio supervisor of elections
- Title 29 RCW - Elections
- Ch. 65.04 RCW - Duties of County auditor for recording, registration, and legal publication
- Title 65 RCW - Recording, registration, and legal publication
Auditor Professional Organizations and Resources
Clerk (Superior Court Clerk)
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. 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.
In the 33 noncharter counties and in two of the charter counties (Snohomish and San Juan) the clerk is an elected office. In the remaining four charter counties (King, Whatcom, Clallam and Pierce) the position of county clerk has been made an appointive position.
Statutory and Constitutional Provisions
- Washington Const. art. IV, § 26 - Provides that the county clerk is the clerk of the superior court
- Washington Const. art. XI, § 5 - Directs legislature to provide for elected county clerks
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county clerk as required elected official
- Ch. 36.23 RCW - General provisions on duty and authority of county clerk
- Ch. 2.32 RCW - Provides for duties of court clerks generally
Clerk (Superior Court Clerk) Professional Organizations and Resources
Board of County Commissioners (or County Councilmembers in Most Charter Counties)
The board of county commissioners or, in most "home rule" charter counties, the county council, is the legislative authority for the county. In the 33 noncharter counties, the county commissioners also serve as the chief administrators for most county operations. In the four charter counties with a council-executive form of government (King, Whatcom, Snohomish, 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 two charter counties (Clallam and San Juan) the commission, in the case of Clallam County, and the council, in the case of San Juan County, is the legislative authority, and most administrative functions have been assigned to an appointed county administrator.
Depending upon the county charter and ordinances, the county council or board of commissioners may also have quasi-judicial duties, such as hearing appeals of local land use decisions. Some county commissions and councils have established a hearing examiner system and appoint a hearing examiner to hold hearings on quasi-judicial land use matters.
The commissioners or council members adopt ordinances, resolutions, and motions, levy taxes, appropriate revenue, and adopt the final budget for the county. The legislative body generally confirms appointments to county boards and commissions. The commissioners or council members generally appoint the members of the boundary review board and planning commission in counties which have created this board and commission. The commissioners can also sit as the board of equalization (basically the county board of property tax appeals) to review disputed assessments.
All of the county commissioners and councilmembers are, or course, elected offices.
Statutory and Constitutional Provisions
- Washington Const. art. II, § 15 - Provides for filling of vacancies in partisan county offices by board of county commissioners
- Washington Const. art. XI, § 5 - Directs legislature to provide for elected board of county commissioners
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county commissioners as required elected officials (three or five)
- Ch. 36.32 RCW - General provisions on duty, authority, and procedures of county commissioners
- RCW 36.32.055 - Provides for increasing size of commission from three to five members
- Ch. 36.40 RCW - General provisions on county budgets and authority of board of commissioners
- Title 36 RCW - Provides for county government generally with general administrative and legislative functions not assigned to specific elected officials remaining with the board of county commissioners or county council in charter counties
Commissioners or Council Members Professional Organizations and Resources
The county coroner or medical examiner is responsible for conducting death investigations, including inquests. In counties over 250,000 in population, the county legislative authority may, upon confirmation by county voters, replace the elected office of coroner with an appointed medical examiner under the medical examiner system. 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. In counties under 40,000 in population the County Prosecuting Attorney serves as the coroner. While not common, the county coroner is also authorized by law to serve as the County Sheriff under certain conditions.
The office of coroner is an elected office in 31 of the noncharter counties. Two noncharter counties (Spokane and Clark) have established appointed medical examiner positions. The position of medical examiner has also been made an appointive position in four of the six charter counties (King, Whatcom, Snohomish and Pierce) while the elected county prosecuting attorney serves as coroner in the remaining two charter counties (Clallam and San Juan).
- Ch. 36.24 RCW - General provisions on duty and authority of county coroner
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county coroner as required elected official in counties over 40,000 in population and, in counties under 40,000, the coroner shall not be elected and the prosecutor shall act as ex officio coroner. Also provides that, in counties over 250,000 population, the elected coroner can be replaced with an appointed medical examiner system under the medical examiner system.
- RCW 36.24.190 - Provides for creation of medical examiner system with appointed medical examiner in counties over 250,000 population
- Ch. 68.50 RCW - Duties relating to human remains
- RCW 68.50.010 - Coroner's Jurisdiction over human remains
- RCW 46.52.065 - Coroner's Responsibility to Submit blood samples to state toxicologist in traffic fatality situations
- Ch. 70.58 RCW - Duties relating to vital statistics
Coroner/Medical Examiner Professional Organizations
The elected office of county executive exists only in the four charter counties, King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Whatcom, which have adopted "home rule" charters providing for a council-executive form of government. The remaining two charter counties (San Juan and Clallam) have established appointed county administrator positions.
There are no constitutional or state statutory provisions addressing the position of county executive or administrator. The authority and duties of the county executive or administrator can only be determined by a review of the individual county charters. 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) which serves as a legislative body establishing policy and an elected executive or appointed administrator responsible for the implementation of council/commission policies and the day-to-day administration of county government functions and services. Administrative functions performed by the board of county commissioners in noncharter counties are delegated to the county executive or administrator in the charter or by individual council ordinances and resolutions codified in the county code.
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.
Statutory and Constitutional Provisions
- Washington Const. art. XI, § 4 - Authorizing counties to adopt "home rule" charters and create their own form of government
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 or 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.
The county prosecutor has other statutory responsibilities such as reporting, election administration, including preparation of ballot titles for county measures and canvassing election returns, acting as ex-officio coroner in counties under 40,000, and maintaining the county law library in counties with a population of less than 8,000.
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 and authority and responsibility of the prosecuting attorney cannot be changed by 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, and other groups relating to judicial and criminal justice issues.
Statutory and Constitutional Provisions
- Washington Const. art. IV, § 9 - Provides that the prosecuting attorney may be removed from office by joint resolution of the legislature and defines basis and procedure for removal
- Washington Const. art. XI, § 4 - Prohibits county "home rule" charter from affecting the elected position of prosecuting attorney
- Washington Const. art. XI, § 5 - Directs legislature to provide for elected prosecuting attorney
- RCW 26.50.120 - Prosecuting attorney's in certain proceedings for violations of domestic no contact orders
- RCW 27.24.068 - Role of county prosecutor in county law library in counties under 8,000
- RCW 29A.36.071 - Role of county prosecutor in preparing ballot titles
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county prosecutor as required elected official and provides that prosecutor shall act as ex officio coroner in counties under 40,000 population
- Ch. 36.27 RCW - General provisions on duty and authority of county prosecuting attorney
- RCW 36.32.200 - Restricts the board of commissioners or county council from contracting with other attorneys to perform functions authorized or required by law to be performed by the prosecuting attorney and requires any contract to be approved by the presiding judge of the county superior court
- RCW 39.34.180 - Responsibility of counties, cities, and towns for certain criminal justice functions within their respective jurisdictions, including prosecution functions
- RCW 43.110.030 - Relating to legal services by the state department of commerce and recognizing the unique role of the prosecuting attorney as legal advisor to county officials
- RCW 70.96A.145 - Provides prosecuting attorney option to represent in chemical dependency civil commitment proceedings
- RCW 71.05.130 - Prosecuting attorney's duties in mental health civil commitment proceedings
Prosecuting Attorney Professional Organizations and Resources
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. 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 employees in the sheriff's office are covered by a statutory civil service system establishing a merit system for employment.
The office of county sheriff is an elected office in every county.
Statutory and Constitutional Provisions
- Washington Const. art. XI, § 5 - Directs legislature to provide for elected sheriff.
- Ch. 36.28 RCW - General provisions on duty and authority of county sheriff.
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county sheriff as required elected official.
- RCW 41.14.070 - Making sheriff and certain deputies exempt from the civil service system.
- RCW 39.34.180 - Responsibility of counties, cities, and towns for certain criminal justice functions within their respective jurisdictions, including law enforcement and detention functions
- Ch. 41.14 RCW - Civil service system governing most sheriff's office employees.
- RCW 70.48.090(3) - Making the county sheriff responsible for the operation of jail facilities, but authorizing the county commissioners or council to create a department of corrections to be in charge of the jail and confinement of persons rather than the sheriff.
Sheriff/Police Chief Professional Organizations and Resources
The county treasurer is the custodian of the county's money and the administrator of the county's financial transactions. In addition to services for the county, the county treasurer provides financial 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. 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).
Statutory and Constitutional Provisions
- Washington Const. art. XI, § 5 - Directs legislature to provide for elected treasurers.
- Ch. 36.29 RCW - General provisions on duty and authority of county treasurer.
- RCW 36.16.030 - Lists county treasurer as required elected official.
- RCW 36.29.100 - County treasurer is ex-officio collector of city taxes
- Ch. 84.56 RCW - Collection of taxes.
Treasurer Professional Organizations and Resources