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AGO 1966 No. 87 - June 08, 1966
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington


DISTRICTS ‑- PUBLIC UTILITY ‑- COEXTENSIVE WITH COUNTY ‑- COMMISSIONER DISTRICTS ‑- BOUNDARIES ‑- CHANGE AUTOMATIC WITH ALTERATION OF COUNTY COMMISSIONER DISTRICT BOUNDARIES.

In a public utility district which is coextensive with the county in which it is located, public utility commissioner districts are automatically affected by a change made in county commissioner district boundaries by the board of county commissioners.

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                                                                    June 8, 1966

Honorable Dan Jolly
State Representative, 16th District
P.O. Box 185
Connell, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 65-66 No. 87

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you have requested an opinion of this office on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            In a public utility district which is coextensive with the county in which it is located, are public utility commissioner districts automatically affected by a change made in county commissioner district boundaries by the county commissioners?

            We answer your question in the affirmative.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            RCW 54.12.010 provides in pertinent part as follows:

            ". . . The powers of the public utility district shall be exercised through a commission consisting of three members in districts of the second class, and five members in districts of the first class.  In all public utility districts one commissioner shall be chosen from each of the three county commissioner districts of the county in which the public  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] utility district is located, when the public utility district is coextensive with the limits of such county.  When the public utility district comprises only a portion of the county, three commissioner districts, numbered consecutively, having approximately equal population and boundaries, following ward and precinct lines, as far as practicable, shall be described in the petition for the formation of the public utility district, and one commissioner shall be elected from each of said commissioner districts.  In all districts of the first class an additional commissioner at large shall be chosen from each at large district.  No person shall be eligible to hold the office of public utility district commissioner unless he is a qualified voter and a free holder within such public utility district, except as hereinafter provided, of the public utility district and of the commissioner district or at large district from which he is elected. . . .

            "The boundaries of the commissioners' districts shall not be changed oftener than once in four years, and only when all members of the commission are present:  Provided, That any proposed change therein must be made by resolution and notice of the time of a public hearing thereon shall be published for two weeks prior thereto:  And provided further, That upon a referendum petition signed by six percent of the qualified voters of the public utility district being filed with the clerk, the commission shall submit such proposed change to the voters of the public utility district for their approval or rejection . . ."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            This statute provides that a public utility commissioner shall be elected from each county commissioner district whenever the public utility district is coextensive with the county.  Additionally, the statute provides that the boundaries of the commissioners' districts shall not be changed any more often than every four years.  Specific requisites for the exercise of this power are set forth.  It is thus necessarily implied that the power to redistrict exists within the public utility  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] district commission.  Does this implied power extend to those districts which are existing by virtue of being a county commissioner district?  If so, does the existence of this implied power in the public utility commission pre‑empt the power of the county commissioners to affect the public utility commissioner districts?

            This office has had occasion to consider the latter question in AGO 49-51 No. 393.  There it was our opinion that the action of the county commissioners in regards to a county commissioner district did not affect the public utility commissioner district that coincided with that county commissioner district.

            We note, however, that this opinion did not consider State ex rel. Mason v. Board of County Com'rs., 146 Wash. 449, 263 Pac. 735 (1928).  There our supreme court had occasion to analyze a similar statute relating to port district commissioners.  The court states, at 453-54:

            ". . .There is nothing in the port district act which indicates that the districts there provided for should be other than the districts of the county commissioners as they should be changed from time to time. . . .  The county is one of the subordinate divisions of the state, and if the legislature has the power to delegate to the county commissioners the right to fix in the first instance and change the boundary lines of the commissioner districts, it would seem to follow necessarily that, when the port district, a public corporation, was created, the legislature had the power to determine in what manner the commissioner districts therein should be provided for. . . ."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            Our research indicates that the port district act as it existed in 1928 did not provide for revision of port commissioner district boundaries.  This was added in 1933, and is presently codified as chapter 53.16 RCW.  The public utility district act was adopted in 1931.  While the organization was patterned upon the port district act, including the use of county commissioner districts, the power to revise public utility commissioner district boundaries was included.  Compare chapter 1, § 4, Laws of 1931, with chapter 92, § 3, Laws of 1911.  See, also, chapter 145, Laws of 1933.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            It is our considered opinion that the legislative history is not sufficient to support the conclusion of AGO 49-51 No. 393 in light of the opinion of the court inState ex rel. Mason v. Board of County Com'rs., supra.  While it is apparent that chapter 1, Laws of 1931, and chapter 145, Laws of 1933, were designed to establish the power to revise commissioner district boundaries with the commission concerned, this does not suffice to remove that power from the board of county commissioners.  It is a rule of statutory construction that the legislature is presumed to know the state of the decisional law affecting the matter intended to be covered by legislation.  See,Kelso v. Tacoma, 63 Wn.2d 913, 390 P.2d 2 (1964).  Hence without a specific provision aimed at achieving a change from the above quoted statement fromState ex rel. Mason v. Board of County Com'rs., supra, it must stand as the controlling principle in this matter.

            It may be argued of course that this result permits a board of county commissioners to alter the boundaries of public utility commissioner districts at will, and thus disqualify potential candidates for the office of public utility district commissioner residing in such county commissioner districts as they were originally established.  See,State ex rel. O'Connell v. Nelson, 7 Wash. 114, 34 Pac. 562 (1893).  However, county commissioners may not arbitrarily revise their commissioner districts, andState ex rel. Mason v. Board of Com'rs., supra, points the way to an appropriate remedy against such arbitrary action.  Furthermore, as the case points out, county commissioners are prohibited by statute from revising their commissioner districts more than once every four years.  RCW 36.32.020.  Parenthetically the prohibition against public utility district commissioners changing their commissioner district boundaries more than once every four years appears to have been modeled after the county commissioner district provision, and lends support to the foregoing conclusion relative to legislative intent.

            Accordingly, we overrule our opinion AGO 49-51 No. 393, and conclude that the action of the board of county commissioners in redefining county commissioner districts automatically redefines public utility commissioner districts.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            We trust the foregoing is of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

JAMES C. HANKEN
Assistant Attorney General

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