Tuesday, August 4, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hopes For New Counties Fade After Ruling

Seattle Times Snohomish County Bureau

FOUR FACTIONS that want to break away from established counties find the rules changing. And a possible salvation, an amendment to the state constitution, would be difficult to pass. But one group, which wants to carve Freedom County out of northern Snohomish County, is charging ahead.

Cedar County has dissolved. Skykomish County is hibernating. Pioneer County has surrendered.

Only Freedom County, which wants to carve itself from the northern half of Snohomish County, is charging fearlessly forward despite a state Supreme Court ruling this year that significantly raised the legal standard for creating new counties.

"We are not going to be rendered vassals or chattel of the state. We are free Americans," said Thom Satterlee, one of Freedom County's self-proclaimed county commissioners.

In its February ruling on a Cedar County appeal, the Supreme Court dealt a possibly lethal blow to all new-county movements. The court interpreted - or redefined, depending on one's viewpoint - the state constitution to mean that a new county cannot be created unless a majority of the area's registered voters sign petitions. And even then, the Legislature doesn't have to create a new county if it doesn't want to, the majority wrote.

"There's nothing that can be done that guarantees a new county," said Redmond resident Lois Gustafson, a leader in the effort to create Cedar County in the eastern three-quarters of King County.

"They gave total discretion to the Legislature," she said. "They took that right away from the people to create a county; the constitution was very clear that it was the people's right."

The rural new-county movement stems from frustration with existing county governments, particularly over land-use controls and environmental regulations.

Two weeks ago, the Cedar County group disbanded. The movement to break away Skykomish County from southeast Snohomish County is dormant; its leaders say the Supreme Court has created an unreachable standard. The folks trying to create Pioneer County out of the northwest corner of Whatcom County say it's futile to keep trying.

Even if the groups start over and collect thousands of new signatures, they don't trust the Legislature to act. Two sessions ago, state Rep. John Koster, R-Sultan, introduced three bills calling for popular votes on Freedom, Skykomish and Pioneer counties. Only the bill for Skykomish County cleared the House; it then died in a Senate committee.

Freedom County's original founders also have given up, saying that Satterlee's faction has taken control of Freedom County's public image, shattering the movement's respectability.

Last year, a member of Satterlee's camp complained to the United Nations' Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, on behalf of all four new-county campaigns. Now, the group has legal challenges pending before the state Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court; one claims Snohomish County is illegally controlling and manipulating Freedom County's assets.

"Try not to fall into the trap of portraying us as whacked-out, anti-government extremists," Satterlee said. "We could make a mistake and try to create anarchy, and throw the Sheriff's Office out. But that's not going to benefit the residents of Freedom County, or Snohomish County."

One possible salvation is a constitutional amendment under study by state Rep. Kathy Lambert, R-Redmond. If enacted, the Legislature would have to place a new-county measure on the local ballot if 10 percent of registered voters within the proposed county's borders sign petitions.

The amendment's author is Rhys Sterling, attorney for the Cedar County Committee.

Lambert faces rough odds: Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and the approval of a majority of state voters. But she thinks more than a half-dozen legislators might co-sponsor the legislation and thinks it could pass.

"Without the clarification, nobody can form another county," Lambert said.

The new-county movement's constitutional scholars argue that the state constitution - and Seattle newspaper accounts of the 1889 constitutional convention - show that the Legislature must create a new county if a majority of voters within the affected area sign petitions asking for one.

"Voters" historically were defined as people who went to the polls in the previous November elections. Voter registration has existed only since 1933, and no counties have been formed since Pend Oreille County's creation in 1911.

Petitions submitted in 1996 by new-county proponents in King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties contained enough signatures, using the turn-of-the-century definition of voter. But by the Supreme Court's definition they are woefully inadequate.

Arnie Hansen, a Skykomish County leader, said that new standard is nearly impossible when one factors in how many people on registered-voter lists have moved away, or even died.

But the new-county movement isn't dead, he said.

"If we met the right climate, I would be willing to again actively pursue it," Hansen said, "because it is a righteous cause." ------------------------------- Signatures gathered

Until February, new-county activists thought they needed signatures from only half of the number of voters who went to the polls the previous November. The would-be counties of Cedar, Freedom, Skykomish and Pioneer all met that goal.

Now the stakes have changed. The state Supreme Court ruled that petitions must be signed by half of the registered voters living within a proposed county's borders.

-- Cedar County would have a population of about 150,000. That area includes more than 97,200 registered voters; petitions were signed by 23,765 registered voters.

-- Freedom County would have a population well over 50,000, with about 30,600 registered voters. Petitions had 9,558 valid signatures.

-- Skykomish County would have a population of about 40,000. Of 20,500 registered voters, 7,193 signed petitions.

-- Pioneer County would have a population of about 34,000, with about 17,600 registered voters. Petitions had 4,134 signatures.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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