This page provides a basic overview of the responsibilities of county commissioners in Washington State, along with practical guidance and tips on doing an effective job.
For more detailed information, download MRSC's County Commissioners Guide.
The roles and duties of county commissioners are numerous and varied. Counties are complex organizations, operating literally dozens of distinct business functions, governed by 11 elected officials (or more depending on the number of judges a county has), and overseen by a commission that acts as the executive, legislative, and the judicial branch of government at various times. The job of commissioner is, therefore, necessarily complex. Commissioners must understand each level of their responsibility to effectively lead a county.
Article 11, section 5 of the Washington Constitution makes the commission form the standard form of county government throughout the state for counties that do not adopt a home rule charter and sets forth, in general terms, the governmental structure that all commission counties must have. Of Washington’s 39 counties, 32 "noncharter" counties operate under the commission form of government provided by state law. Under the commission form of county government the board of county commissioners consists of three members that serve as full-time executives and legislators (or policy makers) for the county. State law does allow counties with a population of 300,000 or more to increase the size of its board to five members, but no counties have done so.
The primary legislative powers of the board of commissioners are found in RCW 36.32.120 and RCW 36.40.100. The powers include: budgeting and appropriation of funds for all county activities; building and maintaining county roads; making and enforcing civil and criminal resolutions and ordinances not in conflict with state law, including those for land use and building construction; supporting and implementing state and federal mandates; executive oversight of all appointed county agencies; construction and maintenance of public buildings; fixing the tax levies for the county and its subordinate jurisdictions; authorizing payments owed by the county and auditing all officers having control of county monies; managing county property and county funds; and prosecuting and defending all actions for and against the county.
Home Rule Charter Form
Seven Washington counties have successfully adopted home rule charters. These are called charter counties, because they are organized under a locally developed charter that is permitted in Washington’s constitution. Charter counties have some freedom in developing alternate structures that typically, but not always, result in larger county boards that usually (but not always) are limited to legislative functions and are called county councils. This document is not targeted at the special circumstances of charter counties, but much of its content is relevant to charter and code counties alike.
Many boards of commissioners have hired professional assistants to act as administrators for the board. These positions have different titles including: county administrator, chief administrative officer, administrative services director, or budget director. Although their responsibilities may vary, the people serving in these positions work on a daily basis with the commissioners and the other elected and appointed officials, to carry out the policy directions of the board, to supervise departments under the board and to coordinate the work of the other officials and staff.
As a commissioner you are authorized and required to make policy for the county. Policy-making means defining high-level goals and long-range outcomes for county government. This includes choosing the direction, the ways and the means to achieve those outcomes and to guide the decision-making process leading to them.
Goal-Setting and Long Range Planning
County policies will have an impact on the lives of its citizens, and for that reason those citizens expect county commissioners to influence the direction of county government. Policy-making is far more art than science. The key to good policy-making is to see ‘the forest for the trees.’ Keep in mind the mission of the organization, and whether the county is following that direction to realize your long-range outcomes. Policy-making describes outcomes; it describes what you want. How your ideas are realized is administration.
It is essential to recognize competing interests among the public and staff, and to cultivate support from these groups by involving them as stakeholders in your policy development. How to do this varies greatly from county to county and from board to board. Generally, policy development first requires you to affirm or define the county’s mission and direction. In other words, make sure you can answer to your own satisfaction the question, “To what purpose is the county here and where must it be pointed to accomplish that purpose?” After that:
- Identify issues and needs that are obstacles to your mission and direction;
- Set goals and objectives to address obstacles and to realize your mission;
- Determine strategies to meet goals and objectives;
- Set priorities and timelines for completing goals and objectives;
- Accomplish the work;
- Evaluate the results.
Commissioners are directly responsible for the first two or three of these elements; and there are opportunities throughout for the involvement of stakeholders.
The Budget Process
The county will only do what commissioners authorize it to pay for; conversely, nothing that commissioners refuse to pay for will get done. The most basic definition of ‘policy’ is ‘what you do,’ so the budget becomes commissioners’ main tool for affecting policy. Commissioners also provide overall organizational leadership and are expected to create paths to better management. The budget is also a management tool; it is the only mechanism for managing the many activities of county government at once. This comprehensive document sets the limits for spending for every program and department in the organization. The only way to see the complex relationship of all the moving parts that compose the county is through the budget. State law requires the board of county commissioners to adopt a budget every year or, every other year if the county opts to do a biennial budget.
The Budget Cycle
The county budget cycle typically starts in the spring or summer with an estimate of revenues for the next year. Based on this forecast, commissioners set guidelines for the budget. These include compensation targets for labor negotiations and whether budgets may grow or must be reduced. Spending proposals are submitted by elected officials and appointed managers in mid-August. These proposals are reviewed by the board of commissioners throughout the fall. Final adoption of the budget occurs in December.
Theory and Practice
In theory, broad goals are developed by the board early on as the framework for the annual budget process. In reality, most budget decisions continue previously set policies or confirm policies adopted at other government levels. Decisions to set new policies are typically incremental and at the margins of the entire budget; the vast majority of budgets are already committed to baseline activities and mandates. Department heads, elected officials, and community groups often come to the board of commissioners with unforeseen financial needs during the budget year. These ‘emergencies’ can have more of an impact on policy than the annual budget development process. These isolated spending requests are difficult to link with spending priorities which have been considered as a whole during the formal budget process. So even though it may be occasionally necessary, making budget decisions out of the context of the larger budget process makes commissioners’ jobs more difficult. Be sparing with budget promises and appropriate some set-aside for emergent issues, and aggregate emergent requests into quarterly or annual supplemental budgets. That way everyone knows the money is limited and the timing is not immediate.
The complex fund structure of counties makes the overall weighing of priorities more difficult. There may be as many as 40 to 80 or more separate funds, most of which are dedicated for specific purposes. It is like having 40 or more separate companies, each with a separate set of books. As a new commissioner, you will benefit greatly from studying your county's fund structure and learning which programs are funded from each fund.
- General Fund/Current Expense Fund. The general fund is often referred to as the current expense fund. It typically funds most criminal justice functions, internal services, other elected officials’ departments, parks, and portions of zoning and building code enforcement. It is where most of the "action" occurs in the budget process.
- Road Fund/Special Revenue Fund. The next most important fund is typically the road fund. It is referred to as a special revenue fund because its revenues are dedicated for the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges. Decision-making is often less contentious for this fund than it is for the current expense fund; it has far fewer officials competing for it because its revenues are dedicated for limited purposes. This is true for most other funds, except the general fund, as well.
- Other Special Revenue Funds. Other common special revenue funds include veterans relief, county fair, public health, law library, auditor's operations and maintenance, parks, elections, human services, and emergency management. Similar to special revenue funds are internal service funds for separately financing internal operations.
- Enterprise Funds. Activities in enterprise funds operate as separate businesses. These are self-sustaining, autonomous functions like sewer, water, and garbage.
- Debt Service Funds. Debt service funds used to accumulate debt service payments, capital projects funds for major capital improvements, proprietary funds expected to develop equity and operate like a business, and internal service funds for financing internal service operations.
An occasional review of the BARS manual published by the State Auditor's Office will familiarize you with the fund structure, accounting issues, and budgeting procedures mandated by the state for all local governments. Your auditor or financial manager will have a copy.
County Finance Committee
Finally, in developing long-term financial goals and policies, consider using the county finance committee for recommendations. The committee is established by RCW 36.48.070 to approve county investment policies, and it consists of the chair of the board, the treasurer, and the auditor. It can be a creative vehicle for the development of other important financial policies to keep the county financially sound.
Environmental and Land Use Planning
Setting environmental and land use policy, especially since the 1990s with the passage of the Growth Management Act (GMA), is another challenging issue area for county commissioners. A broad understanding of land use issues is essential if you wish to be an effective commissioner. In most mid-size to larger counties with urbanized areas, commissioners spend a great deal of time working on land use policy. Citizen participation is encouraged in shaping land use policies under the GMA, and much of the input from constituents will continue to be on environmental and land use issues. Difficulty with land use planning issues has been brought to the forefront with growth management, and it is likely to remain a difficult area for commissioners to find community consensus.
The civil staff of the prosecuting attorney's office is usually assigned to assist in land use matters. An informed and trusted legal advisor is one of a new county commissioner's best assets. The county prosecutor is the legal advisor to the board. With approval from the prosecutor, however, many counties hire legal firms that specialize in land use law to assist in negotiating the complexities of growth management.
Another important asset in setting land use policy is staff that you trust. It is especially important with land use professionals that you make your expectations clear. If commissioners set a general direction and clear expectations about how to interpret the county’s land use code, this staff will bring only those options to constituents, disarming many potential confrontations with the board.
Policymaking on Non-County Boards
State law requires that commissioners serve on boards of other public organizations. Public transit and health district boards both require commissioner participation. Regional support networks for mental health, regional transportation planning councils, housing authorities, air pollution control authorities, and area agencies on aging are all governed by county officials who compose all or part of their governing boards. There are many more such organizations, some unique to a particular county. Be sure to understand and discharge your fiduciary responsibilities when serving on these bodies. You are held to the same level of public trust as in your county responsibilities.
Each of these boards set policy for complex and highly specialized services. Most are highly regulated by, and receive money from, the state and federal governments. The boards often meet monthly and usually have a wide diversity of membership. Contact with management staff is often limited to the board meetings or to the telephone. Given these characteristics, the traditional approach to goal-setting is most appropriate for these organizations. Set goals at an annual retreat, and let staff implement them. There is a danger you could over-commit on these boards. Before committing a lot of time, assess the benefits. Finally, communicate the activity of these boards with the other commissioners by making good reports.
The board of commissioners not only sets policy but is also responsible for its implementation. Commissioners are the chief executives of the county organization. The executive role of a commissioner varies greatly from county to county. The role may be determined by prior executive experience, or it might be tailored to the particular circumstances in the county. It may be defined by the existing commissioners or by historical tradition.
Sometimes a long-tenured commissioner becomes quite skilled in the executive duties of the office and evolves into an unofficial county executive. In other instances these executive duties may be delegated to a county administrator or to a team of appointed department heads. Most counties have either a county administrator or a staff person that assists the commissioners with executive duties. These positions have different titles and sets of responsibilities; among the titles used are Chief Administrative Officer (CAO, ‘administrator’), budget director, and administrative services director.
Hiring and Supervising Management Staff
Regardless of the organizational structure, you and your board have a role in hiring and supervising your management staff. Who you hire and how they perform reflects directly on the performance of the board. Remember, with skilled and trusted management staff running the day-to-day affairs of the county, you will have more time and energy available to work on challenging policy issues and other important leadership activities. It is also beneficial to have a person who can act as a sounding board for new ideas or approaches and for problem solving, since doing the same with another commissioner may constitute a meeting under the Open Public Meetings Act.
A strategic and successful hiring process is critical. Your management staff can be hired with the help of other county administrative staff, typically personnel or human resources support. Often a group interview process with other elected officials and managers is a good idea. Recruiting and selecting a county government administrator requires careful planning, astute evaluation of candidates, and a clear understanding of community needs and the style of manager who can best work with the elected officials. Patience is also important since recruitment can take up to six months, from the time the process begins until the position is filled with a person on the job.
Once hired, your management staff requires active supervision. This includes setting clear expectations, encouraging teamwork and cooperation, and evaluating the work that is done. Supervision is most effective when done by the commissioners as a team. Team supervision of one or more employees can be a challenge. Conflict among commissioners is not uncommon when it comes to reviewing staff performance. It is preferable to invest the necessary time up front setting explicit staff and management expectations rather than reacting when unstated expectations are not met.
This investment means regularly spending time in formal work sessions, with every person reporting directly to the commissioners. In these work sessions, progress towards goals and possible performance problems can be discussed. A written performance evaluation, at least annually, is also recommended. The performance evaluation should address whether pre-established goals and expectations have been met and should cite areas of concern and need for improvement, if appropriate.
Other Executive Duties
Other executive duties of the commissioners may vary greatly. They may include negotiating contracts with labor unions and vendors, interviewing and selecting consultants, or managing construction projects. A commissioner’s executive and administrative responsibilities are very time consuming, and consequently, boards of commissioners should seriously consider hiring professional staff for managing the day-to-day affairs of the county.