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AGO 1993 No. 4 - March 22, 1993
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Christine Gregoire | 1993-2004 | Attorney General of Washington

CITIES AND TOWNS--CHARTERS--FIREMEN--RETIREMENT--PENSIONS--Appointment of a city director of finance to serve on municipal firemen's pension board.

RCW 41.16.020 creates a municipal firemen's pension board and provides that one member is the city comptroller or clerk.  If a charter city eliminates the position of comptroller and assigns those functions to a director of finance, the city can assign the director of finance to the pension board instead of the clerk.

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                                                                  March 22, 1993

HonorableHelen Sommers
State Representative, District 36
203 John L. O'Brien Building, MS 0671  
Olympia, WA  98504-0671                                                                

                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 1993 No. 4

Dear Representative Sommers:

            By letter previously acknowledged you have asked a question we paraphrase as:

            May a first class charter city with no "comptroller" and a "clerk", who performs no financial functions, designate by ordinance another position in which the Charter vests responsibility for all financial affairs of the City to be the member described as "the city comptroller or clerk" on its firefighters' pension board created by RCW 41.16.020?

            We answer the question in the affirmative.

                                                                BACKGROUND

            Although we address the issue as it relates to first class charter cities in general, some information regarding a specific situation may be of assistance.

            Since 1896, Seattle has provided for a single individual to act as both city comptroller and city clerk.  The charter was amended by the voters in 1991, eliminating the office of comptroller.  The duties of the comptroller were transferred to the city clerk who was selected by the City Council and to the newly created position of director of finance who was appointed by the mayor.  The city clerk was directed to attend and record all City Council meetings, administer oaths, and keep custody of the City seal, original rolls of ordinances, documents related to City title to property, and official bonds.

            All of the financial responsibilities previously assigned to the comptroller were transferred to the director of finance.  The referendum submitted to the voters to approve this change provided: "The terms 'City Comptroller' and 'City Treasurer,' as may [be] used elsewhere, shall refer to the Director of Finance, except as the Council may by ordinance, re-assign these functions."  By ordinance, the City designated the director of finance to take the seat on the Firefighters' Pension Board previously held by the comptroller.  Your question is whether this appointment is authorized or whether the city clerk should occupy the seat.

                                                                    ANALYSIS

            This question revolves around RCW 41.16.020 which provides in relevant part:

                        There is hereby created in each city and town a municipal firemen's pension board to consist of the following five members, ex officio, the mayor, or in a city of the first class, the mayor or his designated representative who shall be an elected official of the city, who shall be chairman of the board, the city comptroller or clerk, the chairman of finance of the city council, or if there is no chairman of finance, the city treasurer, and in addition, two regularly employed or retired firemen elected by secret ballot of the employed and retired firemen.

            The central inquiry is: if a city does not have a position designated as "city comptroller" but does have a post of "city clerk", must it name the clerk to sit on the pension board or may it designate the position which bears a different title but is functional equivalent to comptroller.[1]  Simply stated, what controls:  the title or the function?  We conclude that the function is the determinative factor.

            The term "comptroller", which was added to the statute in 1919, is not defined in chapter 41.16 RCW.  Laws of 1919, ch. 196, § 1.  Rules of statutory construction, however, may be employed to resolve the issue.

            First class charter cities are governed in general by chapter 35.22 RCW.  Pursuant to those statutes, the cities have the power to designate in the charters the offices and their duties. RCW 35.22.200;see alsoMiller v. Seattle, 191 Wash. 141, 143, 70 P.2d 786 (1937) (first class charter city has the right to create or abolish offices or to combine work).  A first class city, thus, has the authority to abolish the office of comptroller and transfer its responsibilities to another position.  Similarly, a city could abolish both the offices of comptroller and clerk.  If the determination of who is to sit on the pension board was to be made solely on position title, an abolishment of both positions as so titled by a city would result in the inability to designate anyone to fill the seat on the Board.

            Statutes are to be interpreted so as to make them purposeful and effective.  State v. Day, 96 Wn.2d 646, 648, 638 P.2d 546 (1981).  In light of a first class charter city's ability to abolish these named positions, the statute designating the seats would have no effect if it was interpreted to be controlled by the title.  This interpretation would result in the inability to form a five-person board as required by RCW 41.16.020.  A literal reading of the statute which would result in "unlikely, absurd or strained consequences" is to be avoided.  Day, 96 Wn.2d at 648.  Interpreting the statute to be tied to the exact position title established therein could result in the absurd result that, in a first class charter city, no office might be so titled resulting in the inability of anyone to take the seat.

            The question then becomes whether a particular position is the functional equivalent of the comptroller.  In part this is a factual question which we are not in a position to fully resolve.  We note, however, that, as discussed above, a first class charter city has the authority to designate its offices and respective duties.  For example, Seattle's charter amendment demonstrates that the City intended that the director of finance would assume the financial duties previously held by the comptroller.  The director of finance is responsible for many of the functions previously assigned to the comptroller.

            The referendum stated that unless otherwise stated the term "comptroller" was to mean the director of finance.  "A thing which is within the object, purpose and spirit of an enactment is as much within the act as if it were within the letter."  Whitehead v. Social & Health Servs., 92 Wn.2d 265, 269, 595 P.2d 926 (1979).  These documents demonstrate that for the majority of functions, the director of finance was meant to replace the comptroller.  Therefore we conclude that the director of finance may occupy the spot on the pension board assigned by RCW 41.16.020 to the comptroller.

            We trust that this opinion will be of assistance to you.

                                                                        Very truly yours,

                                                                        CHRISTINE O. GREGOIRE
                                                                        Attorney General

                                                                        STACIA E. REYNOLDS
                                                                        Assistant Attorney General

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    [1]We note that the statute provides that either the clerk or comptroller may sit on the board; it does not limit the availability of the position on the board to one of these offices only in the event the other does not exist.  The choice of who between the comptroller and the clerk is to sit on the board, thus, is up to the city.

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