This page provides a brief overview of the commission and home rule charter forms of county government in Washington State and the consolidated city-county option for home rule charter counties.
Washington’s counties derive their powers from the state constitution, which establishes the legal framework for county government and lists the duties and powers of the county governing bodies.
Washington counties are organized under two forms of government: the commission form and the home rule charter form.
Article 11, section 5 of the Washington Constitution makes the commission form the standard form of county government throughout the state for counties, unless the county adopts a home rule charter as discussed below.Of Washington's 39 counties, 32 "noncharter" counties operate under this commission form of government.
Under the commission form, the county governing body usually consists of a three-member board of commissioners, elected on a partisan basis, who serve as the county's legislative body and also perform executive functions. For this reason, the commission form of government is sometimes referred to as a "plural executive" form of government.
Any noncharter county with a population of 400,000 or more must have a board of commissioners with five members (RCW 36.32.052). Any county with a population greater than 300,000 and less than 400,000 may voluntarily increase the number of commissioners from three to five, with voter approval.
Alternatively, county voters may petition to increase the number of commissioners from three to five (RCW 36.32.055-.0558).
Basic authority and procedures for board of county commissioners are set forth in chapter 36.32 RCW. While the county commissioners establish the budget and act as the county legislative body, they share administrative functions with several other independently elected county officials, including a clerk, treasurer, sheriff, assessor, coroner, and auditor (or recorder). The county prosecuting attorney and the judges of the superior court are also independently elected.
Although there is no constitutional or statutory requirement for county commissioners to delegate any of their executive authority to a separately appointed county administrator, many of them have, to a limited degree, chosen to do so.
For more information on the roles of county leaders, see our page County Elected and Appointed Officials.
Article 11, section 4 of the state constitution provides the option for counties to adopt "home rule" charters to provide their own form of government that may be different from the commission form prescribed by state law. Home rule charters can provide for any county officers deemed necessary to perform county functions, but they cannot affect the election of the prosecuting attorney, the county superintendent of schools, the judges of the superior court, and the justices of the peace, or the jurisdiction of the courts. As outlined in the constitution, the charter process involves electing a group of 15-25 freeholders who are responsible for developing a proposed charter that is voted on by the electorate.
Seven Washington counties have successfully adopted home rule charters:
- King County (1969)
- Clallam County (1977)
- Whatcom County (1979)
- Snohomish County (1980)
- Pierce County (1981)
- San Juan County (2006)
- Clark County (2015)
Case Study:MRSC's article A Brief History of the Development and Passage of Clark County's Home Rule Charter (2015) provides a case study of that county's transition from a traditional commission form of county government to a home rule charter form of government.
Several other counties, including Kitsap (1971), Island (1976 and 1995), Thurston (1978), Cowlitz (1998), Ferry (1993), Skamania (1994), Spokane (1995), Yakima (2011), Asotin (2012 and 2013), Jefferson (2013), Lewis (2018), and Skagit (2018) counties, have tried and failed to adopt charters.
After adoption of a charter, the powers, authority, and duties of county officers provided for by state law, except for the prosecuting attorney, are vested in the county legislative body, unless the charter expressly assigns powers and duties to specific officers. The duties of the board of county commissioners and other elected officers may also be modified by charter. The commissioners and other elected officers may be entirely replaced, subject to certain restrictions.
Charter counties generally choose between two types of forms of government.
Council-Elected Executive Form
In the council-elected executive form, the county executive is elected by the voters and serves as the head of the executive branch of government. The county council is the legislative branch of government, and it enacts ordinances, adopts the budget, and exercises oversight of the administration. Its role is similar to the role of a city council in a mayor-council city.
The county executive has the power to veto legislation; however, a veto can be overridden by the council with a two-thirds majority vote or greater. The county executive proposes policies to the council, executes policies adopted by the council, prepares a budget, and has responsibility for general administration of the county. The county executive appoints and may dismiss department heads, generally with the consent of the council. The county executive's role is similar to the role of a mayor in a mayor-council city.
Commission/Council-Appointed Administrator Form
In this form, an elected body, be it a county commission or council, continues to have the policy-making, legislative, and budget-adoption functions. However, the council or commission delegates all or a portion of its administrative authority to an appointed professional administrator with the specific intent of enhancing administrative coordination and control functions. As an appointed official, the county administrator serves at the pleasure of the council or commission.
Other important aspects that charter counties must choose include:
- Elected Official Partisanship. While all county elected offices in noncharter counties, other than judicial offices, are partisan offices, charter counties may choose if their elected positions are partisan or not.
- Initiative and Referendum. Home rule charters can also provide the powers of initiative and referendum to the citizens of the county, and all existing charter counties have done so. For more information, see our page Initiative and Referendum Powers.
- Elected vs. Appointed Officials. A county charter can make any elected county official, except the prosecuting attorney and superior court judges, an appointed rather than an elected position. Most of the charter counties have done so only selectively. A number of counties have made the Office of the County Clerk and the Office of the Medical Examiner into appointed positions but most others remain elected.
Below is a list of all charter counties, including links to their respective charters, information on their form of government, and a list of which officials are elected and appointed under their charters. For more information on the roles and responsibilities of many of these officials, see our page County Elected and Appointed Officials.
(P) indicates a partisan position while (NP) indicates a nonpartisan position.
|Council-Elected Executive||9-member (NP)||County Executive (NP);|
Prosecuting Attorney (NP);
Director of Elections (NP)
County Administrative Officer;
Treasury Operations Manager;
|Commission-Appointed Administrator||3-member (P)||Assessor (NP);|
Prosecuting Attorney/Coroner (NP);
Community Development Director (NP)
|Council-Elected Executive||7-member (NP)||County Executive (NP);|
Prosecuting Attorney (P);
Treasurer (NP) Clerk
|Council-Elected Executive||5-member (P)||County Executive (P);|
Prosecuting Attorney (P);
|Council-Elected Executive||7-member (P)||County Executive (P);|
Prosecuting Attorney (NP);
|Council-Appointed Administrator||3-member (NP)||Prosecuting Attorney/Coroner (P);|
|Council-Appointed Administrator||5-member (NP)||Assessor (NP);|
Prosecuting Attorney (NP);
|County Manager, Medical|
At the same time the state constitution was amended in 1948 to allow counties to adopt "home rule" charters, another amendment was adopted to allow counties with a "home rule" charter to provide for the formation and government of a combined city and county municipal corporation known as a "city-county." The same procedures applicable to the adoption of a county charter also govern the adoption of a city-county charter, except that the only method of beginning the combined city-county charter process is through a voter petition. There is no minimum population requirement.
In addition to providing for an alternative form of county government, a city-county charter may also merge the county with cities and other municipal corporations within its boundaries. Consolidated city-county governments have been proposed as a way to improve local government service provision by eliminating conflicts between competing levels of local government. Although a few Washington counties have explored this option, no combined city-county governments have yet been formed.
- National Center for the Study of Counties: Responding to the New Realities: Case Studies in County Governance (2012) –Describes how a select group of counties attempted or are in the process of making structural changes in order to better face current and future challenges
- National Civic League: Guide for Charter Commissions(2011)–Guidebook for reviewing and updating charters