Your Responsibilities as a County Commissioner
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 judicial branches 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 the 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.
Commissioners 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, identifying the ways and the means to achieve desired outcomes, and guiding the decision-making process leading to these outcomes.
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.’ Commissioners should keep in mind the mission of the organization and whether the county is following a direction that will lead to the realization of long-range outcomes. Policy-making describes outcomes while administration describes how ideas are realized.
It’s essential that commissioners recognize competing interests among the public and staff and involve these groups as stakeholders in policy development. How to do this varies greatly from county to county and from board to board. Generally, policy development first requires that the county’s mission and direction be affirmed or defined. In other words, this question must first be answered: “To what purpose is the county here and where must it be pointed to accomplish that purpose?” After that, the board of commissioners should:
- Identify issues and needs that are obstacles to the mission and direction;
- Set goals and objectives to address obstacles and to realize the mission;
- Determine strategies to meet goals and objectives;
- Set priorities and a timeline for completing goals and objectives;
- Accomplish the work; and
- 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.
Washington state law requires the board of county commissioners to adopt a budget annually or biannually, if the county opts for a biennial budget.
The county will only do the work that has been authorized in the annual budget. Conversely, nothing that commissioners refuse to pay for will get done. The most basic definition of policy is: "What you do." Thus, the budget becomes a commissioner’s 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 concurrently. This comprehensive document sets the limits on spending for each and every program and department in the organization. The only way to see the complex relationship of all the moving parts that compose a county is through its budget.
The Budget Cycle
The statutory deadlines for the county budget process culminate with a public hearing and budget adoption in October. However, RCW 36.40.071 allows counties to use an alternative budget adoption process (culminating in December) and to adjust the other budget deadlines as needed to meet the later deadline. Most counties use this alternative budget process.
The county budget cycle typically starts with a request to all elected officials and department managers for budget proposals and supporting revenues, with the county clerk developing an estimate of tax revenues for the next year. Additional steps in the budget cycle are approximately as follows
- Mid-August — Spending proposals are submitted by elected officials and appointed managers
- September to early November — Proposals are reviewed by the board of commissioners
- December — Budget is formally adopted by the board of commissioners
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 since 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. Isolated spending requests are difficult to link with spending priorities that were reviewed and approved during the formal, budget-development process. Even though it may be occasionally necessary, budget decisions made out of the context of the larger budget process makes a commissioner’s job more difficult. For this reason, commissioners should be sparing with budget promises and appropriate some set-aside for emergent issues. Commissioners should also aggregate emergent requests into quarterly or annual supplemental budgets to let everyone know that county 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 40-80 or more separate funds, most of which are dedicated for specific purposes. It’s akin to having 40 or more separate companies, each with a separate set of books. A new commissioner is encouraged to study his/her county's fund structure to determine which programs are paid for 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 and can be a source of contention among competing programs, departments, and officials.
- 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 restricted for the construction, maintenance and operations of roads and bridges. Decision-making is often less contentious for this fund because its revenues are restricted for specific purposes set by statute.
- Other Special Revenue Funds. Other common special revenue funds include veteran’s relief, county fair, public health, law library, auditor's operations and maintenance, parks, elections, human services, and emergency management.
- 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 are used for general obligation (GO) debt service only: These funds may not be used for capital projects, proprietary funds, or internal service funds.
The BARS manual (see BARS Cash Basis Manual and BARS GAAP Manual), published by the State Auditor's Office, is an excellent source of information on the fund structure, accounting issues, and budgeting procedures mandated by the state for all local governments. Generally the county auditor or financial manager will have a copy. MRSC also offers County Budget Procedures and Budgeting in Washington State webpages.
County Finance Committee
Finally, in developing long-term financial goals and policies, consider using the county finance committee for recommendations. As established by RCW 36.48.070, the committee consists of the chair of the board, the treasurer, and the auditor, and its purpose is to approve county investment policies. It can also be a creative vehicle for the development of other important financial policies that keep the county financially sound.
Setting environmental and land use policy is another challenging issue area for county commissioners, especially since the passage of the Growth Management Act (GMA) in 1990. To be effective, commissioners should have a broad understanding of land use issues, especially those working in mid-size to larger counties with urbanized areas. These commissioners spend a great deal of time devoted to land use policy. Citizen participation is encouraged in shaping land use policies under the GMA and a good portion of constituent input is on environmental and land use issues. Because land use policy have been brought to the forefront with the GMA, 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 adviser is one of a new county commissioner's best assets. The county prosecutor is the legal adviser 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.
It’s important for commissioners to make their expectations clear with land use professionals. If the board of commissioners sets a general direction and clear expectations about how to interpret the county’s land use code, county staff will bring back only those options that are in line with those expectations, thereby disarming many potential confrontations with the board.
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. Commissioners should be sure to understand and discharge the appropriate fiduciary responsibilities when serving on these bodies since they are held to the same level of public trust as with their 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. Non-county boards often meet monthly and usually have a wide diversity of membership. Contact with management staff is often limited to board meetings or via telephone. Given these characteristics, the traditional approach to goal-setting (e.g., setting goals at an annual retreat and letting staff implement them) is most appropriate for these organizations.
Because there is a danger of overcommitting oneself, commissioners should assess the benefits before agreeing to serve on a non-county board. Finally, a commissioner should keep the county board abreast of the activity of non-county boards on which he/she serves through regular, thorough 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. Titles commonly used for this position include chief administrative officer (CAO, ‘administrator’), budget director, or administrative services director.
Hiring and Supervising Management Staff
Regardless of the organizational structure, the board of commissioners plays a crucial role in hiring and supervising management staff. Who is hired and how management staff perform reflects directly on the performance of the board. A skilled and trusted management staff that oversees day-to-day affairs provides commissioners with more time and energy to work on challenging policy issues and other important leadership activities. It is also beneficial to have staff that 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. 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 approach. Recruiting and selecting a county government administrator requires careful planning, an 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.
Once hired, the 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 by 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 staff member that reports directly to the commissioners. Commissioners should use these work sessions to review progress made towards goals and discuss possible performance problems. 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; consequently, boards of commissioners should seriously consider hiring professional staff for managing the day-to-day affairs of the county.
- MRSC: County Commissioners Guide — Provides more detail on commissioners' roles and responsibilities
- MRSC: Knowing the Territory: Basic Legal Guidelines for Washington City, County, and Special Purpose District Officials — Provides an overview of commissioners' legal requirements
- Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) — Provides advocacy, training, and workshops for county commissioners, councilmembers, and executives
- National Association of Counties (NACo) — Brings county officials together to advocate with a collective voice on national policy, exchange ideas and build new leadership skills, pursue transformational county solutions, and enrich the public’s understanding of county government.