This page provides information about hearing examiners for cities and counties in Washington State, including state statutes, court decisions, and local examples.
Cities and counties in Washington State have statutory authority to establish a hearing examiner system. Under a hearing examiner system, a city or county hires or contracts with a hearing examiner to conduct quasi-judicial hearings, usually in place of local bodies such as the planning commission, the board of adjustment, the board of county commissioners, or the city council.
The basic purpose of having a hearing examiner conduct these hearings is to have a professionally trained individual, typically an attorney, make objective quasi-judicial decisions that are supported by an adequate record and that are free from political influences. Using a hearing examiner system allows local legislative and advisory bodies that might otherwise conduct these hearings to better concentrate on policymaking. It can also potentially reduce local government liability exposure through what should be more consistent and legally sustainable quasi-judicial decisions.
A board of county commissioners or a city council has considerable discretion in establishing how the hearing examiner system will operate. The position of hearing examiner (appointment, qualifications, termination, etc.), the type of issues the hearing examiner is authorized to consider and decide, and the effect of the hearing examiner's decisions are among the matters addressed by the local legislative body and set out in the enabling ordinance.
Although counties and cities use hearing examiners primarily for deciding land use permit applications and/or administrative appeals of land use decisions, they may also be used to make recommendations or decisions on other local matters.
All Cities, Towns, and Counties
- RCW 58.17.330 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner system in cities and counties for issuing recommendations or decisions on preliminary plat
- RCW 36.70B.020(3) – Defines open record hearings on project permit applications – hearing examiner may conduct
- RCW 46.55.240 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner to conduct hearings on abatement and removal of junk vehicles from private property
- RCW 43.21C.075 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner to conduct hearings on State Environmental Policy Act appeals
- Also see specific statutes for code cities, non-code cities, counties, and local/road improvement districts (below)
- RCW 35A.63.110 – Authorizes hearing examiner system as replacement for board of adjustment
- RCW 35A.63.170 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner system in code cities for certain zoning matters
- RCW 35.63.130 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner system in first and second class cities and towns for certain zoning matters
- RCW 36.70.970 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner system in counties for certain zoning matters
- RCW 36.87.060(2) – Authorizes hearing examiner to conduct hearing on proposed county road vacation
- WAC 458-14-136 – Authorizes county boards of equalization to employ hearing examiner(s)
Local/Road Improvement Districts
- RCW 35.43.140 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner to conduct hearing on proposed Local Improvement District (LID) formation
- RCW 35.44.070 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner to conduct LID assessment roll hearing
- RCW 36.94.260 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner to conduct hearings on assessments for LID within the area of a sewerage and/or water general plan
- RCW 36.88.062 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner to conduct hearing on proposed Road Improvement District (RID) formation
- RCW 36.88.095 – Authorizes use of a hearing examiner to conduct RID assessment roll
Below are just a few examples of cities that have adopted hearing examiner systems, including their websites, code provisions, forms, rules of procedure, and other documents.
- Bainbridge Island:
- Hearing Examiner's Office – Applies to general policies and regulations adopted by the city council to specific proposals or situations. Hearings are conducted about land use applications, appeals from decisions of city departments, and various enforcement issues
- City Code Ch. 3.68 – Hearing Examiner
- City Code Sec. 1.18.050 – Hearing before the hearing examiner (Civil Enforcement)
- Land Use Code Ch. 20.35 – Review and Appeal Procedures
- Bellingham Municipal Code Ch. 2.56 – Hearing Examiner, applies to land use and general administrative decisions
- Buckley Ordinance No. 06-16 (2016) – Removing the board of adjustment from the municipal code following adoption of a hearing examiner system
- Duvall Municipal Code Ch. 2.22 – Enforcement Hearing Examiner; applies to land use and other code enforcement
- Everett Municipal Code Ch. 2.23 – Land Use Hearing Examiner
- Lynnwood Municipal Code Ch. 2.22 – Hearing Examiner
- Redmond Municipal Code Ch. 4.28 – Hearing Examiner
- Hearing Examiner Appeal Procedures – Applies to code enforcement, building code, administrative decisions, and SEPA determinations
- Municipal Code Ch. 1.20 – Hearing Examiner System
- Municipal Code Sec 15.115.060 – Hearing Examiner Development Review Proces
- Municipal Code Sec 16A.17.040 – Appeal of Hearing Examiner Decisions
- Spokane Municipal Code Ch. 17G.050 – Hearing Examiner; includes procedures
Below are a few examples of counties that have adopted hearing examiner systems, including their websites, code provisions, forms, rules of procedure, and other documents.
- Benton County Hearings Examiner – Ordinances and agenda
- Clallam County:
- Clark County:
- Douglas County Hearing Examiner – Includes procedures, staff reports, and decisions
- King County Hearing Examiner – Includes regulations, rules, and a case digest
- Spokane County:
- Thurston County:
In addition to these examples, other rules of procedures may be available at the websites listed above.
- Cowlitz County Hearing Examiner Rules of Procedure (2016)
- Des Moines Hearing Examiner Rules of Procedure (2014)
- Maple Valley Hearing Examiner Rules of Procedure (2010)
- Sammamish Hearing Examiner Rules of Procedure (2017)
- Snohomish County Hearing Examiner Rules of Procedure (2013)
- Thurston County Hearing Examiner Rules of Procedure (2013)
Most cities and counties contract for hearing examiner services with private individuals or law firms. However, a few larger jurisdictions with a high case load may hire hearing examiners as staff members. Below are a few examples of job descriptions and RFPs/RFQs.
- Bellevue Hearing Examiner Office Administrator Job Description (2017)
- Tacoma Hearing Examiner Job Description (2017)
- Spokane County Hearing Examiner Job Description (2017)
City RFPs / RFQs
- Bainbridge Island Hearing Examiner Services RFP (2017) – Two-year term; includes professional services agreement for hearing examiner services
- Lakewood Hearing Examiner Services RFQ (2017)
- Puyallup Hearing Examiner Services RFQ (2016) – Preference for one designated individual to serve as hearing examiner, although occasional use of a pro-tem from the same entity is acceptable. City is also receptive to contracting with a public entity, such as another city with excess examiner capacity.
- Renton Hearing Examiner Services RFP (2011) – Three-year contract, replacing a staff hearing examiner due to changes in workload
- Yarrow Point Hearing Examiner RFP (2012) – Initial one-year term with renewals to be negotiated
County RFPs / RFQs
- Benton County Hearing Examiner Services RFP (2015) – Initial one-year term, may be extended for a second year
- Kitsap County Land Use Hearing Examiner RFP (2016) – Initial one-year term, upon reappointment the term extends to four years. Includes generic professional services contract
- Pacific County Land Use Hearing Examiner RFP/Q (2016) – Initial one-year term, may be extended for a second year
Local governments will sometimes contract with another local government to provide hearing examiner services. Below are a few examples.
- Seattle/Mercer Island Hearing Examiner Interlocal Agreement (2014) – Non-exclusive; designates two specific individuals to serve as hearing examiners for Mercer Island; no other individuals may serve as examiner without city manager and examiner agreeing in writing.
- Spokane/Chewelah Hearing Examiner Interlocal Agreement (2016) – Non-exclusive; designates Spokane’s hearing examiner as the hearing examiner pro-tem for Chewelah.
- Spokane/Spokane County Hearing Examiner Interlocal Agreement (2016) – In instances where hearing examiners are unable to hear certain applications, city and county can use each other’s examiners as pro-tems on an in-kind basis or for a fee. Includes adopting resolution
- Spokane County/Deer Park Hearing Examiner Interlocal Agreement (2010)
- Durland v. San Juan County (2014) – A building permit subject to an appeal to a hearing examiner is not a final land use decision until an appeal is made to the hearing examiner and the hearing examiner makes a final determination on the permit; the superior court does not have jurisdiction to review a decision on a permit when the party fails to exhaust administrative remedies by first appealing the permit decision to the hearing examiner.
- City of Federal Way v. Town & Country Real Estate, LLC (2011) – An appellate court does not give any deference to a hearing examiner’s legal conclusions that involve interpretations of state law or regulations, such as SEPA, whereas substantial deference is given for a hearing examiner’s legal conclusions that involve interpretation of city ordinances (see Lanzce G. Douglass, Inc. v. City of Spokane Valley below).
- Lanzce G. Douglass, Inc. v. City of Spokane Valley, review denied (2010) – An appellate court must give substantial deference to both the legal and factual determinations of a hearing examiner as the local authority with expertise in local land use regulations.
- In re Jurisdiction of King County Hearing Examiner (2006) – County code that states that because the hearing examiner can grant an appeal with conditions does not mean the examiner has the authority to deny an appeal with conditions.
- Exendine v. City of Sammamish (2005) – The hearing examiner decided he did not have authority to rule on the constitutional validity of criminal search warrants issued by the district court.
- HJS Dev. v. Pierce County (2003) – Hearing examiner had the authority under local ordinances to revoke the preliminary plat.
- East Fork Hills Rural Ass'n v. Clark County (1998) – Under RCW 36.70.970, which sets the parameters of a county’s hearing examiner system, the hearing examiner’s decision may be given the effect of a recommendation to the legislative authority, or it may be given the effect of an administrative decision appealable within a specified time limit to the legislative authority. The statute does not authorize a combination of these choices, and so the board of county commissioners must choose between original or appellate jurisdiction. Also, a remand to the hearing examiner on the basis of a factual issue is warranted only if the examiner's findings of fact are not supported by substantial evidence.
- State v. County of Pierce, review denied (1992) - In the event the county legislative authority elects to adopt the hearing examiner system in land use matters, two options are available. In one, the examiner's decision is merely a recommendation and the decision is reserved to the county council. In the other, the county allows the examiner's decision to stand unless the decision is appealed within the specified time limits. In the event of an appeal, the county's legislative body may approve, reject, amend or alter the examiner's decision. There is nothing to suggest that the statute limits the county's legislative body's authority in the latter option.
- Maranatha Mining, Inc. v. Pierce County (1990) - RCW 36.70.970 requires that a county legislative body elect between original jurisdiction, which allows it to substitute its judgment for the examiner's on all factual and legal issues, and appellate jurisdiction, which requires that it base its decision on the record made before the examiner and review the examiner's findings of fact only to see if they are supported by substantial evidence. The statute does not authorize a combination of these choices, and a county legislative authority may not define its power in such a way as to incorporate aspects of both alternatives.
- Chaussee v. Snohomish County Council (1984) – Hearing examiner had no discretion to exempt a landowner from requirements of a county ordinance based on what he deemed equitable, without regard to statutory requirements and the need for substantial evidence to meet statutory requirements.
- MRSC: Should Legislative Bodies Conduct Quasi-Judicial Hearings? (2016) – This blog post examines several reasons why it can be preferable to remove legislative bodies from quasi-judicial decisions and use a hearing examiner instead.