Quick Guide for Newly Elected County Officials
This page provides a quick introduction to the core duties and responsibilities of newly elected county officials in Washington State, along with recommended resources for more information.
MRSC also provides a guide for city officials.
Overview of MRSC's Resources
Congratulations on your election! As you transition from campaigning to governing, MRSC is here to help you with research and guidance on a wide range of legal and policy topics. MRSC’s services include:
- Free, personalized consultation. Have a question? Just Ask MRSC! With one call or click you can get a personalized answer from one of our trusted attorneys, policy consultants, or finance experts! For county legal questions, we are required by law to send a copy of our response to the county prosecutor. (RCW 43.110.030(3)). Please note that our guidance does not constitute formal legal advice.
- Online research tools. Our online research portal is a great place to start exploring issues and topics that you need more information on. You can obtain practical guidance through our hundreds of online topic pages; download detailed publications on popular subjects such as the Public Records Act, bidding requirements, and revenue sources; access an extensive collection of local government sample documents to see what others are doing and how they’re doing it; and much more!
- Timely updates in your inbox. By signing up for our popular e-newsletters you can stay informed about new legislation, court decisions, and other important issues for local governments in Washington.
- Webinars and workshops. MRSC hosts regular trainings and webinars, where our staff consultants team up with leading governance professionals to discuss various topics. Many of our trainings offer continuing education credits.
Here are some of our key resources to get you acquainted with your new job:
- Knowing the Territory – Basic legal guidelines for local officials
- County Commissioner Guide – Roles and responsibilities of county commissioners
- Local Government Policymaking Process – Guidelines for how to create good public policies
Classification and Form of Government
The State of Washington no longer uses a formal classification system for counties, which the state legislature abandoned in 1991. However, many statutes make distinctions between different counties based on population, granting those counties different powers and requiring them to follow different rules.
The commission form of government is standard for counties under the state constitution, but counties may adopt a home rule charter to provide their own unique form of government. There are currently seven charter counties:
- Clallam County
- Clark County
- King County
- Pierce County
- San Juan County
- Snohomish County
- Whatcom County
For more information on the commission form of government or home rule charters, see our page County Forms of Government. To see your county’s population and links to key county documents, use MRSC’s County Profiles.
Oath of Office
Your term normally begins on January 1 or when you take the oath of office, whichever is later. The oath is usually administered at a formal meeting of the governing body – either the first meeting after January 1 or the last meeting before January 1.
As a public official, all of your “written” records related to county business are subject to public inspection under the state Public Records Act (PRA), with very narrow exceptions. The PRA defines “writing” very broadly to include not only traditional written records, but also things like photos, maps, videos, voicemails, emails, text messages, and tweets.
State law requires every local elected official to receive public records training no later than 90 days after taking the oath of office or assuming their duties. The training may be completed before assuming office, and each official must take a refresher course at least every four years.
Legislative Process and Policymaking
County commissioners have many responsibilities, serving as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government at various times. (These responsibilities may vary in charter counties, with separate legislative and administrative functions.)
Commissioners must follow certain procedures to enact legislation and establish policies, culminating with public meetings where they vote on individual ordinances, resolutions, and motions.
Ordinances typically refer to permanent laws and rules of conduct, such as establishing laws, prohibiting certain activities, or setting salaries for particular offices. Resolutions are typically less formal and usually set out the commission’s opinion on a special or temporary matter. However, some items may be adopted by ordinance or resolution. Motions are similar to resolutions and direct the commission to take a certain action.
For a resolution, ordinance, or motion to take effect, it must be approved by the board of commissioners or county council with a quorum (minimum number of commissioners) present. Under state law, a quorum consists of two commissioners (for three-member commissions) or three commissioners (for five-member commissions). Most measures only require the support of a majority of the commissioners in attendance, although there are certain exceptions such as emergency expenditures. Charter counties may have their own requirements. For details, see MRSC’s publication on Local Ordinances.
Each county commission is also responsible for setting its own rules of procedure, including items such as the agenda-setting process and appropriate parliamentary procedures. Check with the auditor/clerk of the board to see what formal rules have been adopted by your board of county commissioners.
Some items also require public hearings, where commissioners or other officials solicit comments from the public. These meetings may be legislative (to obtain comments on proposed policies, plans, or budgets affecting a wide variety of citizens) or quasi-judicial (to obtain comments on items affecting individual parties, typically on land use matters).
While commissioners or councilmembers may act in a partisan way at legislative meetings to advance their own policy visions, quasi-judicial proceedings must be conducted in a fair and unbiased manner according to the appearance of fairness doctrine.
Open Public Meetings
The state Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires all meetings of a governing body to be open and accessible to the public. This generally applies to any meeting in which a majority of the county commission or council meets and discusses council business, with limited exceptions. The OPMA contains specific requirements for regular meetings, special meetings, emergency meetings, and executive sessions.
State law requires every member of a governing body subject to OPMA to receive OPMA training no later than 90 days after taking the oath of office or assuming their duties. The training may be completed before assuming office, and each member must take a refresher course at least every four years.
Commissioners share administrative functions with several other independently-elected county officials, typically including the county assessor, auditor, clerk, coroner, sheriff, and treasurer. (For charter counties, the list of elected and appointed officials may be slightly different.)
The county prosecuting attorney and the judges of the superior court are also independently elected. Many counties hire a county administrator who serves under the commission and performs certain administrative duties.
Fiscal management is one of the key responsibilities of elected officials. The operating budget is the most important financial document and provides a road map for the year and a reflection of your county’s priorities. It provides the legal authority to incur and pay expenses by allocating available resources to provide services for your citizens. You should familiarize yourself with your county’s current operating budget, as well as its budget development process and policies.
Counties operate on a calendar year basis, with the fiscal year starting January 1 and ending December 31 – unlike the state, whose fiscal year begins July 1 and ends June 30. Most counties use an annual (one-year) budgeting process, but some adopt a biennial (two-year) budget. The budget process begins in the summer, with the final budget for the upcoming year(s) adopted by the end of the calendar year.
County commissioners are often involved in the development of budget policies and guidelines that help manage the budget process for the various elected or appointed offices and departments of the county. The county auditor or chief financial officer (CFO), depending on the form of county government, is responsible for requesting and receiving the budget proposals from the elected and appointed offices. Upon receipt the auditor/CFO prepares the preliminary budget and presents it to the county commissioners for consideration, public hearing, and adoption.
For all things budget-related, see our page Budgeting in Washington State.
Most significant county purchases and contracts must follow specific competitive bidding processes to ensure fairness, open competition, and efficiency. The minimum rules are set by state statute, but a number of counties have adopted their own, more stringent bidding procedures. Even if competitive bidding is not required, it is usually a good idea.
For more information related to procurement, see our pages on Purchasing and Contracting.
Planning and Land Use
Elected officials set the direction of a county’s planning, development regulations, and zoning by adopting corresponding plans, policies, and regulations. The Growth Management Act requires most counties to prepare comprehensive plans and development regulations.
County officials work with planners and other staff members to develop and implement these plans. Some counties also have a planning commission appointed by the board of commissioners or county council, which typically makes advisory recommendations on long-range plans (such as comprehensive plans) and land use regulations. While some planning commissions make decisions on specific development proposals, many counties delegate that authority to a Hearing Examiner and/or planning staff.
The Department of Commerce has prepared A Short Course on Local Planning, an excellent (and free) resource for newly elected officials and planning commissioners that includes videos, training workshops, and other documents to introduce you to local planning decisions and responsibilities.
As an elected official, it is important to avoid even the appearance of ethical misconduct. Unethical behavior can lead to fines, voided contracts, and even removal from office, as well as reduced trust in your county government.
State law specifically prohibits elected officials from engaging in certain conflicts of interest, such as securing special privileges or exemptions for themselves, receiving gifts related to their work, disclosing confidential information, having financial interests in most public contracts, or holding incompatible offices.
In addition, some counties have adopted their own, more stringent codes of ethics.
- Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) – Provides advocacy, training, and workshops for county commissioners, councilmembers, and executives
- Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) – Provides advocacy, training, and other assistance for all other county elected officials
- National Association of Counties (NACO) - Advocates on behalf of counties at the federal level and provides training and research
- State Auditor’s Office Center for Government Innovation – Provides training and technical assistance to local governments in Washington to improve performance, efficiency, and effectiveness
- Governing Institute: Guide to Financial Literacy – Information on how to connect money, policy, and priorities