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Proposal would ease creation of new county

by Dean A. Radford
Journal Reporter

A Kirkland legislator has introduced a proposal that could help disgruntled rural residents split off from King County and form their own county.

Rep. Toby Nixon, Republican, 45th District, said he's trying to clear up the process residents can follow to create a county, short of leaving the job solely to the discretion of the state Legislature.

He knows he has support in rural east King County. He also knows it's going to be tough to get a hearing for his legislation in a Democrat-controlled Legislature this year.

For now it's a start.

``There are folks who are ready to start this process as soon as the Legislature passes it,'' he said.

He's attending a private meeting in North Bend on Thursday night of elected officials and rural residents to discuss how they want county government to look in the future.

Nixon acknowledges that Kathy Lambert, a former state legislator who now represents rural areas on the King County Council, did much of the groundwork for his legislation when she was in the Legislature.

``I think the people are ready for it now,'' Lambert said. King County isn't working, she said, and everyone now knows it. The whole nation ``knows we can't count ballots,'' she said,

Rural residents tried circumventing the Legislature in the 1990s to form a new county, gathering thousands of signatures to form Cedar County. But their hopes were dashed by the state Supreme Court.

The high court in February 1998 ruled in essence that the Legislature can't be forced to create a new county, which are creatures of the state.

At the time, however, then-Secretary of State Ralph Munro said the Legislature needed to lay out a set of procedures for groups that want to form new counties.

That is what Nixon said he's trying to do.

County Executive Ron Sims called the ruling ``appropriate'' in 1998.

``It should not be necessary for citizens to secede in order to get quality services from their government,'' he said in a statement.

He listed several initiatives designed to make county government more accessible and responsive to rural residents, including an invitation to help revise the Sensitive Areas Ordinance.

But now, like then, anger is fueled by what rural residents say are heavy-handed environmental legislation and higher tax burdens imposed on them by city folk.

Sims said in an interview with the Journal (then the South County Journal) on Feb. 5, 1998 that ``We recognize that rules which work for the cities and suburbs don't always work for the farms and forests. I've always said that all wisdom does not reside in downtown Seattle.''

In its ruling, the Supreme Court did indicate that at least 50 percent of the registered voters in a proposed new county would have to sign petitions to start the process.

However, Nixon said that requirement is ``onerous.'' Instead, his package of legislation includes a constitutional amendment that would lower the percentage to 25 percent.

House Bill 1500 would require that a new county be created by the Legislature or by a vote of the people. It sets up a process for the orderly transition to the new county bureaucracy.

His proposal is modeled after the process used to place a citizens initiative on the ballot.

Nixon's legislation requires that the proponents of a new county clearly delineate its boundaries to ease in the distribution of existing assets and liabilities between the new and old counties.

The legislation will have its first reading today. But it's up to the chairman of the House Local Government Committee, Democrat Geoff Simpson of Covington, whose 47th District includes rural areas, to call for a hearing.

Also in Simpson's committee is a package of legislation proposed by Republican State Rep. Dan Roach on critical areas ordinances, another hot-button issue in rural areas.

Dean Radford covers King County. He can be reached at dean.radford@kingcountyjournal.com or 253-872-6719.

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