Can Enumclaw leave King County? The City Council wants to know.
A motion “to seek legal counsel as to the possibility, process, and impacts of annexing a portion of one county into another” was passed unanimously during the Oct. 25 Enumclaw council meeting.
The question of secession has long since hung in the air, given that the fringes of King County tend to feel they’re not well-represented politically by the larger cities up north.
“In my opinion, the major reason that the City Council is more inclined to annex into another county is the philosophical differences that Enumclaw faces being a rural community as compared with the majority of urban and suburban King County,” Council member Tom Savageau wrote in an email after the meeting. “Those differences relate less to tax and political representation and more to moral and ethical standards. And, I would state probably the largest divisive issue recently is in regards to the handling of COVID on issues such as mask mandates and vaccine mandates. It is inherently apparent that there is a difference in overall beliefs to anyone who walks in downtown Seattle and then drives an hour to Enumclaw and walks in downtown Enumclaw. This seems to be the largest driving factor in why I’ve heard citizens in Enumclaw state their desire to be a part of a different county than King county.”
Council member Chance La Fleur was the one who put the motion on the agenda.
“I’m not saying we can do this, I’m not saying we should, or will, or anything like that… [But] it’s something I’ve thought about for a while, I’ve talked to some of you about in the past,” he said, starting off the conversation. “But it would require that the city probably expend a little bit of resources and possibly a little bit of cost in getting some legal advice about the process, procedure, even the possibility — if it is a possibility.”
La Fleur mentioned that Enumclaw has been annexed into several districts within King County, like being a part of the King County Library System and the Enumclaw Fire Department.
“So annexations within government bodies are a thing. So I would like to put out, if council would be interested in at least having some of the legal research done about the possibility of annexing a portion of one county into another county,” he continued.
Several council members seemed keen on the idea.
Council member Beau Chevassus was the first to support the motion, simply stating an enthusiastic, “yes.”
Council member Kael Johnson was next; “I would agree with that as well, at least taking a look at it. I think that a lot of citizens in Enumclaw would be happy with that choice as well. I would be in favor of that.”
Savageau asked if this issue has come up in the past, and Mayor Jan Molinaro mentioned the failure of what was to be called Cedar County in the 1990s.
According to a 2019 King 5 report, the rural east King County cities — including Black Diamond and Enumclaw — pushed to form their county to split from liberal Seattle.
However, after a committee was formed and nearly 24,000 signatures were sent to the secretary of state to secede from King County, “the secretary of state, chief clerk of the House, secretary of the Senate, and representatives of the presiding officers of the House and Senate concluded that the secretary had no authority to determine if the committee met the requirements to form a new county,” the report reads.
The committee then petitioned the state Superior Court, but “all nine justices agreed that the secretary of State had no duty under the constitution or statutes to certify petitions for new counties,” according to a History Link article, adding that “whether or not to create a new county is entirely up to the discretion of the Legislature.”
None of the council members, though, are talking about creating their own county — they just want to see if it’s possible to leave King and join another county.
“Creating a new county would be a herculean effort, and that would be a tough bar to pass,” La Fleur said. “This would just be seeing if you can even annex into a new county, and if so, what the process is. And then you’d have to look at adjoining counties to see if they’d want to participate.”
Council member Anthony Wright said, “I can see it being a mutual beneficial separation.”
Council member Hoke Overland mentioned that part of Enumclaw is already in Pierce County, so that could possibly aid the city in the process if it wanted to join Pierce.
Finally, Molinaro wanted to make sure the expectations of excited residents were tempered.
“It’s an idea. There are so many hoops to jump through. And there’s so much research that needs to be done, and so many questions that need to be answered,” he said. “I’m not trying to damper this — I think it is an interesting approach to an issue that a lot of us have issues with, for two years or more.”
Chance agreed: “Quite probably, we’re going to get an answer back that it’s just too high a bar or there’s no process at all. So it’s really just formally doing some research and figuring out what the answer is, because I don’t know the answer… none of us know the answer.”
Council member Corrie Koopman Frazier declined to speak at the meeting about this motion, but elaborated on her thoughts in a later email to the Courier-Herald.
“It is no secret that Enumclaw voters do not align with the majority in King County — we are a little red island in a sea of blue and it has been like that for as long as I have lived here. I can still remember seeing the “Support Cedar County” signs as a young girl growing up on a dairy farm and not knowing at the time what the big deal was. As a rural city on the outskirts of the county, we have little in common with Seattle and other metro cities, yet their votes and views set the policies and mandates that affect us with little regard for our input or interests. I think it is a fitting time to at least explore this possibility of joining another county with more similarities than differences, and perhaps the further away from Seattle the better,” she wrote. “Obviously, lower property taxes would be a bonus, but it is much more than that. For me, the latest vaccine passport mandate, making changes at the last minute without consensus or input from cities like ours was one more reason on a list of many why it might be, as councilmember Wright stated, ‘a mutually beneficial separation,’ and I believe the majority of the people we represent feel the same way.”
No process exists
The Enumclaw City Council may need to look no further than the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) of Washington for their answers.
Under the topic of “can one county annex territory from an adjacent county?” MRSC says, “There is no process established by state law for such a change.”
The problem lies in state Legislature, the organization continued.
According to the state constitution, “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 other conditions as may be prescribed by a general law applicable to the whole state…”
However, “the state Legislature has never enacted a ‘general law’ providing a process for shifting a county boundary,” MRSC continued. “Additionally, the state Legislature is prohibited from making a change to the county boundaries in such a situation by article 2, section 28 of the state constitution.”
In short, “The legislature would need to enact a general law providing a process for the residents of land in question to petition for a county boundary change, and then a process for making the change,” the organization concludes.
Of course, some in the state legislature have attempted to create that process, including Sen. Phil Fortunato, who represents Washington’s 31st Legislative District (which includes Enumclaw and Buckley).
Back in 2017, Fortunato crafted Senate Bill 5932, which would set up a process for residents to secede from their county and form their own. However, by the 2018 regular session, the bill was referred to the State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections committee, where it appears to have died.