Committee adopts new district maps for downsized King County Council on January 15, 2005.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 7/08/2006
  • Essay 7839
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On January 15, 2005, the bipartisan King County Districting Committee adopts a map of nine districts for the Metropolitan King County Council to replace the existing 13-district map.  The redistricting is required by a county charter amendment approved by voters the previous November reducing the size of the council from 13 members to nine.  The amendment was promoted by the King County Corrections Guild, which was angered by a 2002 council budget decision cutting jobs at county jails.  The new district map sets up two September 2005 primary races in each of which two council members will have to compete for a single position on the downsized council.

When the King County Council was first created by the Home Rule Charter adopted by voters in 1968, it had nine members. The council, together with the elected County Executive, replaced the three-member Board of County Commissioners that had governed King County since its creation in 1852. The council was expanded to 13 members (and renamed the Metropolitan King County Council) by 1992 Charter amendments that incorporated the previously independent sewer and transit agency Metro (the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle) into county government.

Cutting Back

A decade later, two Republican county council members Kent Pullen (1943-2003) and David Irons proposed a Charter amendment to return the council to nine members. Critics of the 13-member council noted that bigger counties made do with smaller councils (Los Angeles had only five members) and that downsizing would save money. Rural residents, many angered by land-use measures the county adopted to comply with the state's Growth Management Act, also hoped that three rural-oriented council districts would have more clout on a smaller council than they had on the existing 13-member one. However, the council referred the Pullen-Irons proposal to a committee, which decided that downsizing would not significantly improve either the county budget or its governance structure.

The proposal was revived by corrections officers' anger at a council decision in late 2002 to cut the jail budget by $6 million and 67 positions (39 more job cuts than proposed by County Executive Ron Sims). Pullen encouraged Corrections Guild President Karen Caldwell and attorney Jared Karstetter to respond with an initiative forcing the council to place a downsizing amendment before voters. Aided by for-profit initiative promoter Tim Eyman (a Snohomish County resident), the guild easily collected the signatures qualifying Initiative 18 for the November 2003 ballot.

Republican King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng (1938-2007), who argued that the county charter could not be amended by initiative, won an injunction against I-18 in superior court. The guild appealed to the state Supreme Court, and to the surprise of many, the court unanimously ruled that the initiative was valid. However, the September 25, 2003, ruling came too late for I-18 to appear on that November's ballot.

A Tight Deadline

Instead, the initiative appeared on the November 2, 2004, ballot as proposed Charter Amendment 1. Because the measure had been written for the 2003 ballot, it called for redistricting to be completed by January 15, 2005, and to take effect with the Fall 2005 elections. A majority of the council (most of whom opposed downsizing), concerned that the six weeks between certification of the 2004 election and the original deadline would be too short to accomplish redistricting if the measure passed, voted to place the measure on the ballot with a delayed implementation date of 2007 instead of 2005.

The Corrections Guild agreed with the delay, but Eyman and Fay Pullen (widow of Kent Pullen, who died in April 2003) sued to keep the original redistricting deadline. A Snohomish County superior court judge ordered that both versions be placed on the ballot. As a result, in addition to voting for or against the downsizing amendment, voters also chose between Amendment 1A, calling for redistricting in 2005, and 1B, postponing implementation two years.

On November 2, 2004, the reduction to nine members won easily, as expected. The vote on when to implement the change was much closer, but 1A, requiring the new districts to be set by January 15, prevailed. By December 1, a five-member bipartisan Districting Committee was in place to draw the new district lines. The county council appointed two Republicans -- Steve Dennis and Skip Rowley -- and two Democrats -- Joann Francis and J. Michael Mann. Those four chose lobbyist Steve Ohlenkamp, who had served as chief of staff to former County Executive Tim Hill, as the fifth member and chair.

The New Districts

The Districting Committee met the deadline, announcing the new 9-district map in six weeks, far faster than the 10 months required the last time district maps were redrawn -- and that 2001 process had not required reducing seats. The nine new districts presented on January 15, 2005, were automatically controversial, because the size reduction meant that four sitting council members would lose their seats. Two members had already decided not to run again, somewhat reducing the competition for the nine seats available. Republican Rob McKenna was elected state Attorney General in the same election that approved the charter amendment and Democrat Dwight Pelz chose to run for Seattle City Council in 2005 (a race he would lose).

As it turned out, proponents of the size reduction were the most displeased with the new districts. Only two of the current council members had supported the downsizing -- Republican Irons and maverick Democrat Bob Ferguson -- and both saw their districts carved up, requiring each to run for re-election against a fellow member. In the end, Irons chose to run instead for County Executive, losing to Sims, and Ferguson narrowly defeated council member Carolyn Edmonds and retained his seat.

Republicans Steve Hammond and Kathy Lambert, who along with Irons represented the three rural-oriented districts on the previous 13-member council, were also frustrated by the new map. Although many rural residents had seen the reduction as a chance for rural areas to gain some clout, with three out of nine instead of 13 districts, the new map combined the existing three into only two rural districts. In the fall elections, Lambert retained her seat without serious opposition, but Hammond had to compete in the Republican primary against Reagan Dunn, who had been appointed to replace McKenna on the council. Hammond joined Edmonds as the two incumbents to lose election as a result of the charter amendment.

Sources: "2005 Elections," King County Elections website accessed July 5, 2006 (; Keith Ervin, "County Council's Size Is Now Up To Voters," The Seattle Times, October 29, 2004 (; Ervin, "Dispute Over Jobs Leads to Measure," Ibid.; Ervin, "County Council Size Heading for a Trim - Sooner or Later," November 3, 2004, Ibid.; Ervin, "Four Picked to Trim Council," November 23, 2004, Ibid.; Ervin, "Familiar Face to Lead County Council Redistricting," December 2, 2004, Ibid.; Jim Downing, "Panel Formally Adopts Voting-District Changes," January 16, 2005, Ibid.; Maleng v. King County Corrections Guild, 150 Wn.2d 325, 76 P.3d 727 (2003).Note: This essay was updated on May 25, 2007.

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