On May 1, 1969, King County's government begins functioning under the Home Rule Charter approved by voters in the previous November's election. The new charter, drafted by an elected Board of King County Freeholders, completely revises a governmental structure that dates to the County's creation in 1852. A single County Executive (John D. Spellman [1926-2018] is chosen for this position) and a legislative nine-member County Council elected by district replace the three-member Board of County Commissioners that has exercised both executive and legislative power. The charter also replaces most of the County's many elected officers who have headed quasi-independent departments with appointed positions subordinate to the Executive.
Efforts at Reform
Until 1969, King County, like most Washington counties, was governed by three County Commissioners who exercised both legislative and executive power, passing laws and administering many county departments. The County also had numerous other elected officials, including the assessor, auditor, clerk, coroner, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, and treasurer, who ran their departments essentially independently of the commissioners.
For many years good-government reformers sought to modernize the County's Territorial-era government. In 1948, they won passage of a state constitutional amendment that authorized counties to adopt Home Rule charters. As provided by the amendment, "freeholders" (property owners) were elected in 1950 to draft a charter. However, their proposed charter, which would have replaced the three County Commissioners with a seven-member non-partisan County Council and an appointed County Administrator and transformed all elected offices except the prosecutor's into appointed positions, was soundly defeated in the 1952 election.
A sequence of scandals during the 1960s involving the assessor's office, the prosecutor's office, and a courthouse remodeling project led the Municipal League and League of Women Voters to make a second attempt at a Home Rule charter. In 1966, the reformers asked the Board of County Commissioners to set an election of freeholders to prepare a proposed charter. The commissioners did not, so the Committee to Modernize County Government submitted petition signatures calling for a freeholder election. The commissioners accepted the signatures, but the state Supreme Court ruled that the number was insufficient, canceling the 1966 freeholder vote. However, the commissioners then agreed to place the freeholder election on the 1967 ballot without requiring petition signatures.
A primary election in September 1967 whittled a field of over 90 contenders down to 30 finalists from whom the 15 freeholders were elected the following November. Beginning on December 5, 1967, the Board of King County Freeholders met 55 times for a total of more than 200 hours. Freeholder Richard R. Albrecht, a 36-year-old attorney, was elected chairman of the board and guided the deliberations. The freeholders hired Paul R. Meyer as Executive Secretary and retained John H. Strasburger of the Short, Cressman & Cable firm as legal counsel.
At first the freeholders appeared seriously divided, with differences over issues including whether elected offices should be partisan or non-partisan, whether the assessor should be elected or appointed, and how many county councilmembers there should be. But by September 6, 1968, when they approved a proposed charter, the freeholders had reached unanimous agreement on all issues. Many freeholders credited Albrecht, their chairman, for their success at achieving a compromise consensus.
In resolving several contested issues, the freeholders took an approach different from their predecessors. Many observers felt that the 1952 proposals for non-partisan elections and an appointed assessor, which provoked opposition from the political parties and the assessor at the time, Ralph S. Stacy, helped doom that charter. The 1968 charter provided for partisan elections and kept the assessor as an elected position, but made all other elected offices, except the prosecutor, appointed.
In another difference from the earlier proposal, the 1968 draft placed administrative control under an elected County Executive, rather than under an administrator appointed by the council. Although the freeholders initially agreed on nine Councilmembers, to be elected by district, many feared that the voters would balk at adding that many paid officials. An attempt to reduce the number of Councilmembers to seven was narrowly defeated before the final draft was approved.
On the Ballot
The County Commissioners changed only one word in the freeholders' draft before placing the Home Rule Charter on the November 5, 1968, ballot. All three commissioners -- John O'Brien, Ed Munro, and John Spellman, supported the charter. However, other County officials, especially those who would lose elected positions such as Sheriff Jack D. Porter and Treasurer M. J. R. Williams, opposed it. So did the King County Labor Council, deputy sheriffs, and other county employees who feared the charter would roll back recent labor gains in civil service protections and collective bargaining.
Despite the opposition, the charter sailed to victory with nearly 62 percent of the vote, surpassing its supporters' most optimistic predictions. As provided in the charter, a primary election was held on February 11, 1969, and a general election on March 11 to elect the new County Council and Executive. Commissioner Spellman, a Republican, won the Executive race and the Republicans held five Council seats to the Democrats' four.
The Charter Takes Effect
Spellman and the new Council took office on May 1, 1969, when the new charter went into effect. Two days earlier, on April 28, the new Councilmembers and their staff began moving into remodeled offices in the courthouse. As provided in the new charter and state constitution, the terms of elective offices abolished by the charter terminated on the May 1 effective date, but the occupants of those positions remained in county employment until the date that their elected term would have expired (and were eligible for re-appointment after that).
Like most constitutions and charters, King County's Home Rule charter allows for amendments, and it has been amended frequently in the years since its adoption. Many amendments were minor, but there have been some major changes. In 1992, in conjunction with the merger of Metro (the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle) into County government, the County Council size was expanded to 13; a subsequent amendment in 2004 reduced it back to nine. And a 1996 amendment made the sheriff's position elected, as it had been before the charter was adopted.