PASCO — Franklin County has another chance to argue that Latinos are being fairly represented in county commissioner elections.
Judge Sam Swanberg allowed the county to cancel an agreement that required the county to come up with new district maps and change to district-only elections.
His decision Monday afternoon resets the case to where it was a little more than a month ago, and sets the county and the League of United Latin American Citizens up for a trial.
Swanberg suggested that should happen before the end of the year.
The judge pointed out that he wasn’t making any decision about whether the county was violating the Washington Voting Rights Act. He also found merit to the argument that the county sat on its hands and was not working to defend itself.
In the end, Swanberg agreed that the decision in the lawsuit affects everyone in the county, and was concerned that it appeared that the elected officials didn’t agree with the decision.
“I think it’s in the best interest that the public at large (for the case) to be heard on the merits,” he said. “I think it provides a greater assurance to the community.”
Swanberg said they should expedite the case, since it should have been decided on Sept. 13 as part of the court hearing where the two sides entered into the agreement.
Chad Dunn, the attorney representing the three members of the league, said he wanted a trial now that the county walked back their previous agreement. He pointed out that they couldn’t be trusted to offer up another agreement and further delay the case.
Now, facing a trial later this year, the county has returned to Seattle firm Floyd, Pflueger and Ringer to defend them.
The firm was the home of the county’s first attorney, John Safarli, who took a break from practicing law earlier in the year. Their new attorneys with the firm are Francis Floyd and Brittany Ward.
Voting Rights lawsuit
Three local members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) filed a lawsuit, with the help of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, challenging how the commissioner districts are drawn and calling for district-only elections in April.
The lawsuit was filed about six months after the county was given a chance to change it.
As part of the lawsuit, the attorneys for LULAC asked for the judge to make a decision based on their analysis of the voting patterns and population of the county.
In response to that, attorney Casey Bruner filed a response saying the evidence showed that the heavily Latino precincts in east Pasco voted differently than the other sections of the county. As part of that admission, they said they weren’t going to fight that the districts and voting system needed to change.
Franklin County Commissioners Clint Didier and Rocky Mullen said they were shocked by the decision, and didn’t want their attorneys to concede. They ordered Prosecutor Shawn Sant to reverse the decision.
Sant turned the case over to Prosecutor Andy Miller for the hearing to reverse the case.
Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Brown told Swanberg the commissioners never made a public decision to make the agreement.
Part of the commissioner’s job description is to “defend all actions for and against the county.”
The county can’t make an agreement in court without the commissioners signing off on it, Brown said. Without an agreement, the default position of the attorney should have been to fight the change.
“As the declarations of commissioners Didier and Mullen reflect, the Franklin County board did not authorize what essentially was a stipulated order concluding this action against Franklin County,” according to the motion filed by Brown.
He said it was clear the prosecutor and the commissioners had a miscommunication.
Dunn pointed out the county had put little work into defending the case.
First, they only responded to an October 2020 notice just as the April deadline approached to ask for more time. After getting some more time, they decided to file the lawsuit.
They also haven’t responded to requests for information. He noted that they have met with their attorneys in private several times, and Sant sent a letter to the commissioners explaining what was going to happen.
He noted that the commissioners waited until after the agreement was put into place before trying to reverse course.
“The evidence demonstrates, without ambiguity, that the defendants knowingly conceded to the summary judgment motion and, in any event, there was no other non-frivolous response to the summary judgment motion because all the evidence amassed by anyone, supports the summary judgment,” Dunn said in a response to the motion.