We live in the era of big government: huge federal government,
big state government, even big local governments. Citizens in
Washington state, however, are using a provision in the state
constitution to rein in government by seceding from their counties
and forming new counties within the confines of the old parent
Citizens committees to form new counties have sprung up across
the state and are spreading like wildfire. There are nine new
counties being proposed in Washington. Four of them have gained
signatures from a majority of voters within their jurisdiction,
which is required to break away. Five others are still collecting
signatures but seem poised to soon achieve their goals.
Cedar, Skykomish and Freedom counties are being created out of
King and Snohomish counties around Seattle. On the Canadian border,
Pioneer County is being created out of Whatcom County. The five
others are River (near Vancouver), Puget Sound, West Seattle and
Vashon (near Seattle), and Liberty County (out of Grant County
in central Washington).
Why are they seceding? Lois Gustafson, president of Cedar County
Committee, says the bid to create new counties aims "to bring
thegovernment close to the people." Joe Ahrend, of Citizens
for River County, says "taxes are out of control. Every time
someone wants to do something with their land it seems there's
some endangered bug on it. We have no say on how money is spent,
finally we said enough is enough." Amy Hansen of Skykomish
County Committee says the movement is about "representation,
local control, less bureaucracy, more responsive officials, and
In the view of these leaders, county govemments have become too
distant, too bureaucratic, too large, too meddlesome and too entrenched,
and have forgotten that local officials are supposed to serve
the people rather than other bureaucracies in Olympia and Washington,
D.C. Many of the issues that have brought this movement into being
involve restriction on development and use of private property.
Leaders say they plan to eliminate most of the local regulations.
Another issue that has thrown the establishment into panic is
the new county leaders' stated intent to reassert local control
over things like law enforcement and education, which have come
increasingly under control of state and federal government.The
mission statement of Citizens for River County, for example, says
that the new county will accept no federal or state education
funds. Rather than trying to maintain an expensive public school
bureaucracy, they say they will actually encourage alternatives
like home schooling.
It has-been said that the ultimate voting power is the power to
vote with your feet. When governments become too burdensome, people
leave their jurisdiction. To stem the loss of revenue government
then either must become less burdensome, or extend its jurisdiction
to make it impractical for anyone to leave. This being true, the
easier it is to leave a government jurisdiction the less burdensome
that government can be. The ultimate extension of this principle
is the ability for small communities to leave a govemment's jurisdiction
without having to move geographically.
As one would expect, the political establishment in Washington
state does not look favorably on these movements, but supporters
are using a provision of the Washington constitution which seems
to allow for the creation of new counties on fairly easy terms.
Article I 1, section 3 of the Washington constitution reads:
New Counties. No new counties shall be established which
shall reduce any county to a population less than four thousand
(4,000), nor shall a new county be formed containing a less population
than two thousand (2,000). There shall be no territory stricken
from any county unless a majority of the voters living in such
territory shall petition therefore and then only under such conditions
as may be prescribed by general law applicable to the whole state.
What is unique about this provision is that unlike many constitutions
which require the permission of the old county in order to create
a new one; here, all that is required is a petition by a Majority
of voters in the territory to form the new county.
Theoretically, if you are not happy with the way your local government
is running things, all you have to do is get together with a couple
thousand of your neighbors, and you can secede and start your
own county. It is never quite as easy as that. The political establishment
in the state has being doing everything it can to prevent the
formation of new counties.
Although the secretary of state's office has certified that the
petitions have achieved the number of signatures needed, the new
counties cannot come into existence until the state legislature
enacts legislation specifying how these splits are to take place.
The legislature will divide up the assets and liabilities of the
old county, and set the official county boundaries. Last spring,
State Rep. John Koster, a Republican from the district of the
proposed Skykomish County, introduced bills to bring into existence
three of these new counties.
The bills faced the united opposition of Democrats in the state
legislature, but Republicans have a majority in both houses. Nevertheless,
Republican support for the new counties proved lukewarm. Only
the one bill to create Skykomish County was actually brought up
for a vote in the House, and passed. Pressure from Democrat Gov.
Gary Locke prevented any such bill from being considered in the
state Senate, despite its Republican control. One of the staffers
on the committee handing the creation of new counties said he
believes the passage of the Skykomish County bill through the
House represented a sop thrown to supporters of the new counties
rather than any senous, commitment from most members.
The official creation of the three counties remains in limbo until
next year, when the state legislature can resurrect the measures.
But supporters of the new counties insist that they will never
rest until the new counties come into existence. The other proposed
county with enough signatures, Cedar County, is pursuing a slightly
different route. The Cedar County committee has maintained that
the petition process constitutes a special election.
The committee has filed suit with the state Supreme Court, asking
the court to order the secretary of state's office to certify
the petition process as an election. They feel that if the process
is certified as an election, the legislature will have no choice
but to pass legislation bringing the county into existence. John
Stokes, one of the founders of the new county movement, has taken
an even more creative approach.
In a move which is controversial even within the new county movement,
Stokes has filed a petition with the United Nations Human Rights
Commission arguing that "the right of self-determination
and self-government.are being denied by the state of Washington."
Supporters hope the complaint will embarrass Gov. Locke enough
to get him to drop his opposition.
While the opposition of the political establishment may delay
the creation of new counties, it has done nothing to dilute the
ardor of the new county movement. If anything, such resistance
has energized the movement even more, and has shown the need for
more representative government. Citizens for River County started
their movement in the summer of 1996 and in less than a year the
committee has collected more than 4,000 signatures - about a third
of the total needed.
While secession has always been opposed by existing establishments,
there have been a couple of notable successes in recent years.
In 1983, through a petition process very similar to that being
used in Washington, the northern half of Yuma County, Ariz. broke
away to form the new county of La Paz. The political establishment
in Arizona apparently was caught off guard by the move and was
unable to stop it. Nevertheless, after La Paz came into existence
and it appeared that other counties might also break apart, the
state changed its law to make county secession much more difficult.
Another success story in progress is the secession of the San
Fernando Valley from the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles has
a population larger than many states, and larger than many countries;
it is a huge, sprawling city. The size and population of the city
has meant that local government does not really exist in the ordinary
sense of the word. For years the population of San Fernando has
sought to break away from Los Angeles and become its own city,
but the Los Angeles city council has had veto power over loss
of any section of the city.
Finally, this spring, because of public outcry, the city of Los
Angeles has dropped its veto of the new proposal and is accepting
a compromise bill in the California legislature, which will remove
the veto power of the city council. Senate bill 176 and assembly
bill 62 sailed through committee and seem ready to pass the full
legislature, to be signed by Gov. Wilson. This proposal will allow
San Fernando to secede from Los Angeles with a majority vote of
the Los Angeles residents.
That vote is not assured, but supporters feel that they finally
have a real chance.
Secession of any sort has never been easy. The American colonies
fought a long war for their independence. Madison remarked in
Federalist 14 that one of the advantages of the American federal
system, provided for in Article 4 Section 3, was that when states
became too populous for effective self-government they could divide
and form new states.
Jealousy among states for representation in the Senate, and the
desire of established governments to keep as many subjects as
possible, has prevented this from happening. Nevertheless, on
the local level we are beginning to see a revival of the old idea
that self-government means local government.
At a time when politicians are increasingly moving towards large,
centralized government, citizens are finding an effective tool
in returning to smaller, more local government. The United States
was founded on the idea of self-determination and local control
- just maybe we have a chance to get back to it.
Paul Clark is chairman of the Coalition for Local Sovereignty, and tracks citizen efforts to gain more local control over their affairs. For more information on this burgeoning movement or related issues, contact Clark at 58 Crescent Road, Suite B, Greenbelt, MD. 20770, or call (301) 982-1360. .
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